05/30/2013 10:00AM

John P. Sparkman: Sahara Sky evokes hope for continuance of Ribot line

Tom Keyser
Sahara Sky, a fourth-generation descendant of Ribot, won the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on May 27.

Widely considered the greatest European racehorse of the 20th century, the undefeated Ribot always was very much a longshot on pedigree to found an enduring male line.

His sire, Tenerani, was best at two miles, a distance well out of the mainstream even in the 1950s, and hailed from an obscure Italian branch of the St. Simon male line. And though Ribot’s dam, Romanella, by El Greco, was a champion Italian juvenile filly, her pedigree antecedents were almost equally obscure to American eyes.

As a result, despite his unblemished 16-race career from 1954 through 1956, including consecutive wide-margin victories in Europe’s greatest weight-for-age race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, many American breeders were more than a little skeptical when the late John W. Galbreath of Darby Dan Farm imported Ribot to stand at stud in Kentucky in 1961.

Ribot made believers of them in short order, with 1965 champion 3-year-old male and Preakness Stakes winner Tom Rolfe in his first American crop. Ribot also sired 1969 Horse of the Year and Belmont Stakes winner Arts and Letters, the brilliant Graustark, and 11 European champions and/or classic winners among his 64 stakes winners from 429 foals (14.9 percent). As shown in the accompanying table, his male line produced 23 American champions or classic winners over the next five decades and dozens more in other parts of the world.

As breeders turned more and more toward speedy, precocious lines over the past two decades, however, the male line of Ribot has all but disappeared. Thus, it was most gratifying to see his fourth-generation male-line descendant Sahara Sky win the 120th running of the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap last Monday.

Sahara Sky is one of 60 stakes winners and eight Grade 1 or Group 1 winners sired by Pleasant Tap, the best sire son of 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Pleasant Colony. Pleasant Colony, in turn, was the best son of Graustark’s full brother His Majesty, who led the American sire list in 1982, a feat Ribot achieved three times in England.

Ribot’s male line flourished worldwide in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Tom Rolfe ranked among the leading American sires, and his champion son Hoist the Flag sired another just as good in Alleged. Graustark sired champion and outstanding sire Key to the Mint and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Proud Truth, while Arts and Letters sired Preakness winner Codex.

Ribot’s Irish champion Ragusa climbed as high as second on the English sire list in 1973, the year his son Morston won the Epsom Derby, and Ribot’s sons Molvedo and Andrea Mantegna both led the Italian sire list. Con Brio ranked among the leading sires in Argentina, and Saint Ange did the same in Chile, while Latin Lover sired two champions in Australia.

As other branches of the Ribot male line have faded, though, only the line descending from His Majesty through Pleasant Colony has persisted. Good sire that he is, 2003 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and 2004 Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect, by Pleasant Colony, has not sired a colt remotely resembling a likely successor, and the first crop of Pleasant Tap’s only son in Kentucky, 2007 Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago, are currently 2-year-olds.

Bred and raced by the late Thomas Mellon Evans’s Buckland Farm, Pleasant Tap ranked among the best colts of his generation from ages 2 through 5, despite periods when it appeared his connections did not quite know what to do with him.

The winner of the seven-furlong Sunny Slope Stakes on dirt and second in the Grade 2 Hoist the Flag Stakes on turf at 2, he finished third behind Unbridled and Summer Squall in the 1990 Kentucky Derby. In the space of two months that fall, he went from running eighth in the 1 1/2-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf to winning the Grade 2, seven-furlong Malibu Stakes on dirt.

Pleasant Tap placed in the Santa Anita, San Bernardino, and Goodwood handicaps around two turns at 4 and then, surprisingly, was entered in the six-furlong Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He ran a remarkable race, rallying from last to finish second behind upset winner Sheikh Albadou.

That seemed to convince his connections for a while that he was a sprinter, despite his stayer’s pedigree (his broodmare sire, Stage Door Johnny, won the Belmont Stakes), and he duly won the Grade 3 Commonwealth Breeders’ Cup Stakes and Churchill Downs Handicap at seven furlongs and ran second to Dixie Brass in the Met Mile.

Returned to his natural distance of 10 furlongs, Pleasant Tap beat Strike the Gold in the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap, ran second to Sultry Song in the 1 1/8-mile Woodward Stakes, and then beat Strike the Gold again and A.P. Indy in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. A.P. Indy had his revenge in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but Pleasant Tap’s rallying second assured him of champion-older-male honors.

A big, solidly made, powerful horse, Pleasant Tap has been a steady, consistent sire of mostly two-turn horses in a one-turn world. His dual Grade 1-winning son Premium Tap was exported to Saudi Arabia, and his English-based multiple Group 1 winner David Junior stands in Japan. Despite his victories in both the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and Goodwood Stakes and third in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Tiago commands only a $3,500 stud fee and modest patronage.

There is simply very little market for horses who are perceived as distance runners from a line of distance horses. Thus, Sahara Sky’s victory in the Met Mile, coupled with previous wins in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes at six furlongs and San Carlos at seven could convince breeders that he is something different.

Sahara Sky is the fourth foal, fourth winner, and first stakes winner out of Grade 3-winning sprinter Seeking the Sky, by Storm Cat. Seeking the Sky’s current 3-year-old, Animal Style, by Spanish Steps, also has earned black type this year, winning the Van Berg Stakes at Fair Grounds.

The winner of the Grade 3 Interborough Handicap in 2000 and the 1999 Ruthless Stakes, Seeking the Sky was a half-sister to three stakes-placed runners out of 1994 Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes winner Seeking Regina, by Seeking the Gold. Seeking Regina was a full sister to stakes winner Oxford Scholar, the dam of two stakes winners and granddam of another, and half-sister to stakes winner Tutorial, by Forty Niner, the dam of Grade 3 winner Dixie Band, by Dixie Union.

Another half-sister, the stakes-placed Liberty School, by Pine Bluff, is the dam of multiple graded stakes winner Just Jenda, by Menifee.

Sahara Sky’s third dam, stakes winner Fulbright Scholar, by Cox’s Ridge, is a fourth-generation descendant of Moon Star II, by Hyperion, a high-class English racemare imported in the 1950s. Sahara Sky is the first Grade 1 winner descending from Moon Star II in female line.

Sahara Sky is inbred 4x6 to Ribot, since his fourth dam, Matriculation, is a daughter of his best American son, Arts and Letters, but his pedigree is basically an outcross. He also could serve as something of an antidote to the abundance of Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector blood in American pedigrees. His dam carries one cross of each in the third generation, but that would be a relatively light dose for the majority of high-class American mares.

Whether Sahara Sky will get that chance depends, of course, on his subsequent racing career. Like his sire, he has been at his best as a 5-year-old, and should he continue to follow Pleasant Tap’s lead to the top of his division, he might yet earn the chance to extend the great male line of Ribot.

Ribot's male line

Leading runners by Ribot, his sons, grandsons, etc., denoting all champions and classic winners

Tom Rolfe (1965 Preakness, ch. 3yo male)
    Hoist the Flag (1970 ch. 2yo male)
        Sensational (1976 ch. 2yo filly)
        Alleged (1977 ch. 3yo Eng., 1978 ch. older horse Eur.)
            Fiesta Gal (1987 CCA Oaks)
            Miss Alleged (1991 ch. turf female)
            Law Society (1985 Irish Derby, ch. 2yo and 3yo Ire.)
            Midway Lady (1986 Epsom Oaks, 1000 Guineas)
            Hours After (1988 French Derby)
            Shantou (1996 St. Leger)
            Sir Harry Lewis (1987 Irish Derby)
            Shahmiad (1994 Italian Oaks)
            Jurado (1988 ch. miler Italy)
    Bowl Game (1979 ch. turf male)
    Run the Gantlet (1971 ch. turf horse)
        April Run (1982 ch. grass female)
        Ardross (1981 ch. older horse England)
            Filia Ardross (1989 German Oaks)
        Swiftfoot (1982 Irish Oaks, ch. 3yo filly Ireland)
        Commanche Run (1984 St. Leger)
    Allez Milord (1986 ch. 3yo Germany)
    Salt Marsh
        Just in Case (1984 ch. miler Argentina)
        Malaga (1981 ch. 3yo filly Argentina)
        Mustard (1983 mare of the year Argentina)
Arts and Letters (1969 Belmont, HOY)
    Codex (1980 Preakness)
        Badger Land (2001, 2004 leading sire in South Africa)
            Hinterland (2002 ch. 3yo male South Africa)
            Badger’s Coast (2000 ch. 3yo male South Africa)
            Highland Night (2004 ch. stayer South Africa)
            Blossoming Fields (1996 ch. 2yo male South Africa)
            Badger’s Drift (2001 South African Derby)
        Lost Code
            Magic Code (1999 ch. older female Canada)
Graustark (1985 leading broodmare sire England)
    Avatar (1975 Belmont)
        Prince Avatar (1983 ch. 2yo Canada)
    Key to the Mint (1972 ch. 3yo male)
        Plugged Nickle (1980 ch. sprinter)
        Jewel Princess (1996 older female)
        Kamar (1979 ch. 3yo filly Canada)
        Gold and Ivory (1984 ch. 3yo Germany, Italy)
        Java Gold
            Kona Gold (2000 ch. sprinter)
            Boreal (2001 German Derby)
    Tempest Queen  (1978 ch. 3yo filly)
    Caracolero (1974 French Derby, ch. 3yo male)
        Imperial Choice (1985 HOY Canada)

His Majesty (1982 leading sire U.S.)
    Pleasant Colony (1981 Derby, Preakness, ch. 3yo male)
        Colonial Affair (1993 Belmont)
        Pleasant Tap (1992 ch. older male)
        Pleasant Stage (1991 ch. 2yo filly)
        St. Jovite (1992 Irish Derby, HOY Europe)
    Tight Spot (1991 ch. turf male)
    Panjandrum (1980 ch. 2yo Italy)
        Go for Gin (1994 Derby)
        Saratoga Dew (1992 ch. 3yo filly)
            Bat Cana (1993 Argentine 2000 Guineas)
Latin Lover
    Latin Knight (1970 ch. 2yo, 1971 ch. 3yo Australia)
    Rain Lover (1968, 1969 ch. older horse Australia)
    Leica Lover (1973 Australian Derby)
Boucher (1972 St. Leger)
Con Brio
    Contraventora (1974 ch. 3yo filly, 1975 ch. older female)
    Cawston’s Pride (1970 ch. 2yo filly England)
    Apollon (1976 ch. 2yo, 1977 ch. 3yo Argentina)
    Bola de Cristal (1973 Argentine Oaks, ch. 3yo filly)
    Acertijo (1979 Argentine Derby)
Molvedo (1961 ch. 3yo Europe, 1976 leading sire Italy)
    Red Arrow (1976 Italian Derby, ch. 3yo)
Ragusa (1963 St. Leger, Irish Derby)
    Morston (1973 Epsom Derby, ch. 3yo male)
    Ragstone (1974 ch. older horse England)
    Ballymore (1972 Irish 2000 Guineas)
Ribofilio (1968 ch. 2yo England)
    Torpedo Boat (1979 South African Oaks)
Saint Ange
    Sainte Trop (1970 Chilean Oaks, ch. 3yo filly)
    Saint Mesme (1981 Chilean Derby)

Boldface indicates U.S. champions and/or classic winners.