Trainer Ribaudo relishing annual return to Belmont Park
by Mary Eddy
On a quiet morning at Belmont Park, trainer Bobby Ribaudo’s phone rang with the caller ID showing Marc Keller. Ribaudo laughed as he saw the name of his lone client and longtime friend, who made his daily call to check in on the 12 horses he has stabled with the veteran conditioner.
“I might lose this guy if I don’t take this call,” quipped Ribaudo.
Ribaudo and Keller, who have teamed up to win multiple graded stakes races together during their decades-long partnership, will have the chance to make the grade once again in Saturday’s Grade 3, $175,000 Soaring Softly as Quarrel contests the seven-furlong turf sprint at Belmont, a track that has been the site of some of Ribaudo’s most memorable victories.
This spring marks the 47th consecutive year Ribaudo has saddled horses at Belmont, continuing a storied career that has seen him win races on the sport’s biggest stages. Ribaudo’s nearly half-century run at Belmont dates back to his first starter over Big Sandy when Mr. International won a claiming race on May 6, 1976.
Since then, Ribaudo, 72, has reached the pinnacle of success at the Elmont oval, scoring Grade 1 victories on both surfaces with two Keller-campaigned horses: Grand Couturier in the 2008 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Bribon in the 2009 Metropolitan Handicap.
“We don’t run as much as the average guy, but we have a patient owner who understands there’s no sense in running unless the horse is at 100 percent,” said Ribaudo. “It’s easier said than done to be patient, but having an owner on the same page makes it possible.”
Ribaudo spoke of the positive experience he has had for nearly two decades training for Keller.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have small owners, but good owners, and it’s why we stayed small through the years,” said Ribaudo. “If you don’t have quality owners, you have no business. Marc and I are very comfortable with each other and he breeds nice horses.”
Ribaudo’s top-level success was several decades in the making, his journey beginning humbly with visits to Aqueduct Racetrack and Belmont in his youth during the 1960s.
“I was born and raised in Brooklyn and everybody had their day at the races,” said Ribaudo. “I would go to the races on the weekends and Saratoga was a vacation for four or five days in the summer. The passion started there, and I got involved by going to the races. I graduated high school and went right to work in the barns hotwalking for a few trainers.”
Ribuado went out on his own in January of 1976 at Aqueduct Racetrack, where he won his first career race five weeks into his career with Swift Ethan in a claiming race. He started his first two stakes horses the following year, hitting the board in both starts when Double Quill finished third and second in the Grade 3 Seneca Handicap and Grade 2 Manhattan Handicap, respectively. It would be another 23 years before Ribaudo found the winner’s circle for a stakes race, but the talented Biogio’s Rose was well worth the wait for a 2000 campaign that saw her score two Grade 3 triumphs in the Rare Treat Handicap and Next Move Handicap, both at Aqueduct.
Ribaudo continued to find success in smaller stakes races through the early 2000s, but was able to take his career to a whole new level when Keller decided to look overseas for racing prospects, a practice that Ribaudo said was not as popular in the mid-2000s as it is today.
“I trained for over 30 years before I won a Grade 1,” said Ribaudo. “Fortunately, we won four in a very short period of time. We’ve been so fortunate. At the time of Bribon and Grand Couturier, you could go to France and buy not inexpensive horses, but reasonably priced horses. It was a nice place to go get a distance grass horse.”
Ribaudo’s stable may be smaller now than it was two decades ago, but he has continued to prosper with a modest but talented group of horses. He sent out Pulsate to victory in the 2021 Lucky Coin at Saratoga, and Daunt to a third-place finish in the Awad at Belmont that fall.
Daunt went on to win an allowance event at Belmont at the Big A in October and finished second in his seasonal bow on May 11 at Belmont. Quarrel, the 3-year-old daughter of Speightstown, returns in Saturday’s Grade 3 Soaring Softly after breaking her maiden at third asking over the Aqueduct green in November.
While many of Ribaudo’s career-best wins have come over the turf, he said it is merely a coincidence that his trainees do particularly well on the lawn, noting the irony of Bribon starting out as a turf horse and becoming a dirt specialist.
“It turned into a fluke that we do so well on the turf,” Ribaudo said, with a laugh. “And the funny thing is Bribon came over here as a grass horse, but he was very rank and tough to handle. We gelded him, switched him to dirt, and it really turned his career around. He was an intended grass horse who turned out to be a dirt horse.”
Boasting more than 440 wins with total purse earnings in excess of $17 million, Ribaudo will look to build upon those numbers as the Belmont spring/summer meet rolls on. Ribaudo said it is the anticipation of whatever lies around the corner that keeps him excited for every race, even after saddling horses in close to 4,000 career races.
“I’m really looking forward to running horses like Daunt and Quarrel and seeing how they progress,” said Ribaudo. “Horses like them always give you something to look forward to.”
Once the Belmont meet wraps up on July 9, Ribaudo will make his annual trip north to Saratoga, a racetrack that has awarded him with stakes success when Grand Couturier won back-to-back editions of the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational in 2007-08 and the Grade 2 Bowling Green in 2009. He fondly recalled the summers spent at the Spa with the talented son of Grand Lodge.
“Grand Couturier was third the first year we ran him in the Sword Dancer and then the next two years, we won it,” said Ribaudo. “We knew he was going to be a distance horse early on and keeping him going for three or four years was great.”
As one of dozens of smaller training outfits on the NYRA circuit, Ribaudo stressed the importance of operations like his not just in New York, but across the sport as a whole.
“These smaller guys are the backbone of the game,” said Ribaudo. “The first five races a day are filled by the little guys, and without them, the game wouldn’t survive. We need small owners and syndicates to keep us going.”