BC Internationals: Mile contender Ribchester
Ribchester improved from two to three, and again during his four-year-old campaign, making him Europe’s leading miler ahead of his career finale in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).
A credit to trainer Richard Fahey, Ribchester has never finished out of the top three (his record reflects one unplaced result thanks to a disqualification). In watching his races, you see a genuine performer who gives his all and keeps coming, as if not knowing – or refusing to countenance – that he’s beaten.
It’s an indicator of Fahey’s regard for him that he tried Ribchester in the 2015 Gimcrack (G2) as a maiden, who’d finished second on debut. Outperforming his 25-1 odds in the York feature, the Iffraaj colt took the runner-up spot. That caught the eye of the Godolphin talent scouts, and he was scooped up as a most promising prospect.
In his first outing in the royal blue silks, Ribchester was no longer a secret. He went off as the 13-8 favorite in the Mill Reef (G2) (click link for replay) and promptly broke his maiden at the expense of one of Godolphin’s better early-season two-year-olds, Log Out Island.
Ribchester was not seen again until the spring of 2016, when prepping in the Prix Djebel (G3) over heavy going at Maisons-Laffitte. Although a useful second, the still-green colt sideswiped a rival in the process of his rally and got himself demoted to fifth.
Advancing to the 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket, Ribchester stayed on for third to Galileo Gold at odds of 33-1. Fahey lowered his sights for the Jersey (G3) at Royal Ascot, and the work-in-progress responded with a convincing victory. Even his status as co-highweight, shouldering 132 pounds, couldn’t mask his evident superiority.
Ribchester was now ready to try the division leaders in the Sussex (G1), an eagerly anticipated summit of Guineas winners – Galileo Gold versus French 2000 Guineas (G1) star The Gurkha and the Irish equivalent’s hero, Awtaad. The Sussex therefore furnished a barometer of just how much Ribchester had progressed when he flashed an eye-catching third. Had he been positioned closer to the pace, he could have made things more interesting for The Gurkha and runner-up Galileo Gold. Ribchester’s 3 1/2-length deficit with Galileo Gold from Newmarket had now shrunk to a short head.
Back in France for the Prix Jacques le Marois (G1) at Deauville, Ribchester achieved his top-level breakthrough by defeating smart older horses Vadamos and Ervedya. Galileo Gold, by now going retrograde, was only eighth.
Ribchester ran arguably his best race of 2016 in his seasonal finale in the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) at Ascot. Once Aidan O’Brien’s superstar filly Minding kicked away from him, Ribchester knuckled down and chased her all the way to the line, reducing her margin to just a half-length.
Off that evidence, Ribchester was worth trying beyond a mile. He accordingly stepped up to about nine furlongs for his 2017 kick-off in the Dubai Turf (G1) on World Cup night. Leading early before easing into the tracking role, he rolled to the front again only to get run down late by Japan’s Vivlos and France’s Heshem. It was a commendable effort off the layoff, up in trip, all the more so since the top two had the benefit of a tightener, and the unexpectedly rain-softened ground likely demanded a greater degree of fitness.
Ribchester has since stuck to a mile in Europe, although Fahey has occasionally wondered about how he’d handle 1 1/4 miles. Connections saw no compelling reason to experiment, however, when he’s proven so good as a miler.
The May 20 Lockinge (G1) didn’t go to plan, as his rabbit fluffed the start. No problem for Ribchester. Jockey William Buick called an audible and let him do his own work on the front end, and Ribchester powered clear on the soft ground.
Although Ribchester has coped will all kinds of going, his finest hour came in the fastest conditions. The Queen Anne (G1) at Royal Ascot unfolded as intended, with his pacemaker – joined by Qatar Racing’s rabbit – speeding on ahead. Ribchester relaxed kindly before picking up, and his finish was too strong for Mutakayyef (whom North American fans might remember finishing third to Tepin in last year’s Woodbine Mile [G1]). Better still, he broke the record for a mile down the straight course in 1:36.60.
Seeking to complete the triple in the Sussex, Ribchester encountered miserable conditions. He forged on bravely, as in the Lockinge, when his rabbit didn’t break alertly, and shook off a challenge from Zelzal (whose Mile profile is in the pipeline). But he couldn’t repel mudlark Here Comes When. Despite looking beaten, Ribchester came again and somehow clawed his way back to within a neck of the 20-1 upsetter. Fahey in hindsight wished he hadn’t tried to lead throughout in the adverse weather. At least the Sussex reminded us of Ribchester’s courage.
Ribchester rebounded in the Prix du Moulin (G1), besting a solid yardstick in Taareef, who’d previously beaten Zelzal, traded decisions with Al Wukair, and went on to add the Prix Daniel Wildenstein (G2) on Arc weekend.
Trying to go one better than last year in the Queen Elizabeth II on Champions Day, Ribchester didn’t appear to settle as well as he did in the Queen Anne over the same course and distance in June. He was in closer proximity to his rabbit, and may have taken command a bit sooner on the soft ground. That left him more vulnerable to the late kick of Persuasive, who was coming off excellent placings to Hydrangea and Roly Poly in quicker conditions, but now had her preferred going. Ribchester hung toward the far rail, doing Churchill no favors, but as ever, found another gear to go after Persuasive again. If the result was a foregone conclusion, Ribchester didn’t know it as he fought back to cut the margin to a length.
From that career review, Ribchester obviously rates as a prime player in the Mile. But the two-week turnaround from the October 21 QEII, at the end of a long year that began in Dubai, is cause for pause. Some time ago, Fahey sounded unfazed about the prospects of a QEII/Breeders’ Cup double, citing Ribchester’s robust constitution. Later, though, the idea of wheeling back became more of a question, and as late as last week, Fahey described him as only “50-50” to advance to Del Mar. (I don't think the concern applies as much to Lancaster Bomber making the same turnaround, since he was soon beaten on the QEII going, and Ribchester presumably had a much harder race.)
Ribchester’s sent the right signals in his subsequent exercise, so he’s talked connections into giving him one more run before he retires to Kildangan Stud in 2018. As Pat Cummings noted on Twitter, Ribchester’s stud fee has already been advertised as €30,000. Compare Mile rival Zelzal, who’s retiring to France next year but with his fee to be determined – as if his team are at least hopeful he’ll warrant a better figure after Saturday. Ditto for soon-to-be-retirees Highland Reel, Churchill, and Ulysses. Is the idea that even if Ribchester won, it wouldn’t prompt a higher fee anyway? Or did the Darley/Kildangan marketers just not expect him to turn up at Del Mar after all? Perhaps such tea leaves aren’t to be over-interpreted, but it’s at least a development to note.
In any event, to put aside speculation and return to fact, Fahey retains his faith. Here are a few excerpts from his recent Sporting Life column:
He's an exceptional horse and he's made the decision a really easy one to be honest. He's come out of Ascot bouncing and he's not showing any signs of stiffness at all.
As a trainer you're almost looking for an excuse not to run a horse like him but there are no reasons why we wouldn't go.
I'm confident the faster ground won't be an issue for him, in my mind I honestly feel he'll be better for it, and we'll just have to see when it comes to running around a bend.
What I can say is that he runs around a left-handed bend every morning in his work and is fine with that.
For me, the question about Ribchester going a mile at Del Mar is his tendency to build up momentum. He has not been the push-button, kill you with an instant turn of foot type, which is one reason why he’s shaped as a horse who could be effective going longer. If two turns on a sharp track get him out of his usual wind-up rhythm, that would compromise his win chances. I can envision the Mile playing more to a horse with a lethal burst of acceleration. That said, a horse of his class and consistency is entitled to be involved in the finish if anywhere near his usual level.
Photo by Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com