In a sport of mostly declining fortunes, trainer Robert Ribaudo counts himself among the lucky ones.
Operating a small stable while running at his native New York tracks for more than 30 years, the 57-year-old conditioner hit the national stage last year with Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) contender Grand Couturier.
The 5-year-old British-bred horse has won back-to-back renewals of Saratoga's Sword Dancer Stakes (gr. IT) and turned in the most impressive American prep this year for the Oct. 25 Turf at Santa Anita when he romped home by more than 10 lengths in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT) at Belmont Park one month ago.
A winner of seven of 17 starts with earnings of $1,220,100, Grand Couturier ran sixth in last year's Breeders' Cup Turf under bog-like conditions at Monmouth Park. Ribaudo is hopeful that his 6-1 morning line choice will do much better this time. He'll be facing some of the biggest and and most prestigious stables in the world — names such as Aidan O'Brien (with race favorite Soldier of Fortune), Sir Michael Stoute (Conduit), Bobby Frankel (Out of Control) Shug McGaughey (Dancing Forever), Michael de Kock (Eagle Mountain) and Dermot Weld (Winchester).
Grand Couturier came to Ribaudo in 2006 when a former client of his, fellow New Yorker Marc Keller, decided to jump back into racing in a bigger way after being out it as an active owner since 1990.
"What were the chances of that," asks Ribaudo. "Most people these days are getting out of racing.This is not a healthy business for attracting new owners."
Ribaudo now trains 12 horses, all for Keller, an asset investment firm director who had initially quit horseracing to concentrate on his business. Keller later bought some younger horses at sales that are now based in Florida and developing as well.
"When he decided he wanted get back in the game, he said he didn't want to go to the sales and buy yearlings, the way we did it before," Ribaudo said. "He didn't want to have to wait a couple of years for his horses to be ready to race.
"We knew a bloodstock agent out here (on the West Coast) who helped us with connections for some quality horses that were of racing age."
Those connections took Keller to Europe where he found six horses, including Grand Couturier, then a 3-year-old with well-known French conditioner Jean-Claude Rouget.
"As usually happens, some of them worked out and some of them didn't," Ribaudo said of the lot. But in Grand Couturier, a son of Grand Lodge, they realized they could have something special.
Grand Couturier had learned to run in the French provinces while stabled at Rouget's private yard and showed some abliity with three consecutive wins at minor racetracks. Early in his 3-year-old season, the bay ran in the Prix Noailles (Fr-II) at Longchamp, finishing third while beaten just a neck. Keller bought him after that effort and Grand Couturier went on to win a listed race before posting a fourth-place finish behind the standout Rail Link in Longchamp's 2006 Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris (Fr-I).
He began his U.S. career less than two months later, finishing third in his first crack at the Sword Dancer. After a seven-month lay-up later in the year, Grand Couturier would not post his first U.S. victory until the following year's Sword Dancer, which he won by three lengths.
His 2008 campaign has been highlighted by the two grade I victories, which came after a difficult trip with a sixth-place finish in the Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT), a race that included Breeders' Cup Turf foes Red Rocks, who won, and third-place finisher Better Talk Now.
Ribaudo waited until Oct. 22 to ship Grand Couturier, who appreciates cooler weather, to California, where temperatures have hovered in the upper 80s in recent days. Following a strong four-furlong workout on the Belmont turf Oct. 15, the trainer says he'll give his horse a couple of jogs around the main track at Santa Anita prior to the race.
"He's definitely a difficult horse," Ribaudo said. "He's high-strung, he's tough to gallop and it's hard to keep weight on him."
But he came out of the Turf Classic well and did not drop any pounds afterward. "I just want to keep him happy. If he's not fit now, he'll never be fit."
Ribaudo points to the example of trainer Graham Motion and 2004 BC Turf winner Better Talk Now, who is still in training at the age of 9. He hopes to run Grand Couturier for at least one more season.
"That's the game plan," he said. "The unfortunate thing is that there's just not a great market right now for stallions in this country, especially for turf runners. There might be a better market for him internationally. But it makes more sense, for now, to keep him on the track."