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If appearances count for greatness, Ribot will have to concede to mediocrity. He is inconspicuous and not particularly well made. Many horses entered daily in claiming races are more impressive looking. Only his eyes, which seem different even if they aren't, and his thin skin, which some fanciers feel is a sign of aristocracy, reveal anything exceptional in the animal.
What, then, is the secret of Ribot? It is the way of the track and track people to invest successful horses with traits that are perhaps more human than they are equine. So it is that Mario Incisa, half owner of Ribot, ventures one hypothesis: "He has brains. He is a very clever horse." Others in Ribot's entourage agree with Incisa and have cloaked him in a wily and canny personality that is as aware as it is sensitive.
On racing days, for instance, Ribot, according to his handlers, becomes a different horse. His trainer, Ugo Penco, a former groom who rose from the ranks, goes even further. He says Ribot knows the difference between San Siro, Ascot and Longchamp. Just before the Ascot race, Penco told Incisa: "Look how different he is today. He knows he must prove himself." If this is a bit of Latin romanticism, Ribot does seem to distinguish exhibition gallops from the real thing. The first time he appeared in an exhibition he was surprised by the applause. He knew it should come after and not before a race. Now he enjoys exhibitions to the point of showing off. After one last month at the Campanelle track in Rome, Ribot threw Camici when the jockey stood in the stirrups and leaned forward to give him a confidential pat on the neck. His practical joke accomplished, Ribot eschewed, as he always does, running away and bemused himself instead with a few mouthfuls of grass.
Ribot is said to be pleasant and boyish. The basis of this view is his friendship for Magistris, a modest horse he was brought up and trained with. Ribot never moves without his friend and becomes restless if Magistris is taken from his accustomed stall next to Ribot. He is also said to feed his oats to his friend, but more striking than that is his purported admiration for pretty, perfumed women. When a seemly lady visits him, he is said to start breathing deeply, as if to inhale Guerlain's or Dior's latest. This, again, is an Italian interpretation of an Italian horse's penchant.
HEAD TO TOE
Undoubtedly much more to the point is a minute physical examination and measurement done on Ribot by a Milan doctor, Leopoldo Pagliano, a lover of horses who many years before had appointed himself the honorary son of the childless Tesio. Pagliano's conclusion: Ribot has a chest out of all proportion to his body.
The rest of the physical facts are simple: Ribot has a short back, a compact body and a relatively short distance between his ribs and hip bones. Foaled on Feb. 27, 1952, Ribot stands 16.1 hands high and weighs a little over 1,000 pounds. His sire, Tenerani, was a very good but not exceptional horse. He won the Ascot Goodwood Cup in 1948. His dam, Romanella, did not have an important racing career and, until Ribot, was considered only a mediocre brood mare. There is, however, a strain of madness or eccentricity in her blood. Several of her relatives were withdrawn from racing for erratic behavior. (This may account for Ribot's jettisoning of Camici. On another occasion last summer, Ribot unsaddled an exercise boy, who died after the fall.)
It is Pagliano's contention that with his great chest, Ribot has a lung capacity that is outsized for horses of his stature. Consequently, more oxygen is pumped through his heart and, as happens with leading distance runners (human), his heart beat is low, 35 to the minute, 85-90 after a 1?-mile run. Pulse and blood pressure return to normal after two hours. Ribot reaches a fatigue point considerably later than most horses. Jockey Camici, in fact, has said that after a number of hard races he thought Ribot could go 500 more yards at the same clip without wilting.
He probably could have. In this respect only, Ribot is different, but he is no monster. Like all other geniuses, Ribot is that very rare thing, a normal creature, only more so.
Federico Tesio would scoff at such purely materialistic explanations. A good horse, he used to say, walks with his legs, gallops with his lungs, resists with his heart but wins only with his spirit or character. Tesio believed that horses get this spirit from the violence of desire surrounding their conception.