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    Middle East
     Nov 5, 2008
Turkey bids farewell to a great racer
By Fazile Zahir

FETHIYE, Turkey - Unlike the English, Turks are not renowned as animal lovers. Most domestic animals endure lives that are mundane at best and terrifying at worst. One rare breed, however, stands apart in the nation's affections - the racehorse.

A famous Black Sea axiom claims that a man values three things above all others: his gun, his woman and his horse. After all, the Turkish relationship with horses goes back over 1,000 years. The horses of Central Asia, among them the fabulous golden Akhal-Teke, were the motor of the imposing war machine that brought the early Khans out of the Steppes and into the domination of Asia Minor.

A dark bay stallion known as the Byerly Turk was captured from


the Turks by an English military officer at the Battle of Buda in Hungary in 1686. That horse became one of three stallions that founded the English Thoroughbred horse racing bloodstock. The Byerly Turkish Cup is still run in Istanbul.

It has been a sad week, however, for Turkey's equine aficionados. A "jubilee", a farewell event held for no other animal in Turkey, has marked the country's most renowned race horse transition from competition and national celebrity and into retirement. The horse in question is Ribella, the nine-year-old bay mare, whose extremely successful flat racing career has made her both the most popular and the most profitable horse in Turkish history.

Jubilees, or farewell matches, are generally held for retiring sports stars. Still, Ribella is the biggest celebrity in the Turkish racing world. Her record is enviable, winning 27 out of 61 races, and her working life has added glamour and international recognition to Turkish equestrians. It is estimated that Ribella has earned about US$2 million for her owners, the Tasbek family.

Her racing career started as a two-year-old filly, winning her first major race - over 1,400 meters on grass - in 2001. She won the Grade 2 International Anatolian Cup from 2004 to 2007 and the Zubeyde Hanim Race in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. Coming second to Pawnee Rhythm in her first-ever Grade 1 race, Ribella went on to other Grade 1 victories, including the 2,100-meter 47th Mare's Race in 2002 and the Prime Minister's Cup and the Victorious Sultan Mehmet's Cup, both in 2005.

But it wasn't just her success that made Ribella popular: it was her spirit and style. She was the horse that never gave up, regularly bursting out of the pack in the final furlongs to sprint - nostrils flared, chest bellowing and head thrust forward - towards the finishing line.

As Turkish racing struggles to make a profit (60% of the Turkish Jockey Club's income is deducted in taxes as compared with about 8% in Britain) and to offer large purses, richer stables have began to look for prestige and prize money abroad. Due to this, Ribella entered in the 2005 Dubai International Racing Carnival at the unfamiliar Nad El Sheba hippodrome.

The hearts of Turkish sports fans, and especially the Tasbeks', pounded furiously in Dubai. Ribella came out of the turn and eyed the straight stretch in front of her. With incredible strength she steamed past the pack and went nose-to-nose with the leader Moon Dazzle. A photo-finish pronounced her the first Turkish horse to win in Dubai.

Ribella's proud owner Selman Tasbek commented that her performance "... didn't just make me proud as Selman Tasbek but as a Turk because that's how the foreigners saw her. It's a great success for Turkish horsemanship and I was so pleased to see her described in the papers as a Turkish delight. There's no fault with our horses, its our people who are found wanting. We don't speak English that well and we lack the bravery to take financial risks, but now there's nothing to stop us improving ourselves."

Surprisingly, this is not the first time Ribella has been retired. In July 2006, after she won the Adnan Menderes Cup, the Tasbek family said they were taking her out of racing. Her hiatus didn't last long; in October 2006 she was entered in the International Topkapi Cup.

As Selman Tasbek explained at the time: "She was worn out after the Adnan Menderes Cup which she broke records in. We thought she couldn't race to that standard again and took her back to the farm so she could become a mother. After a short time resting there we saw she was back to her old self; she couldn't keep still. When I saw her excitement and sparkle, I decided to enter her ..."
The Topkapi Cup turned out to be one of her most famous victories. Slighter than the other horses, she was at the back of the pack until the final 200 meters when she surged forward to overtake them all. Another photo-finish pronounced her queen of the contest. Spectators on the day commented that it was as if she knew it was her comeback performance and that she had something to prove.

Her appearance at Veliefendi Racecourse on October 29 was the last time Ribella will set a hoof on a race track in a professional capacity. Still, she's not exactly ready to be put out to pasture. Instead, her owners are sending her to the famous Irish Ballysax Manor stud farm in the hopes that her future foals will carry the same competitive coursing and immensely commercial blood.

Fazile Zahir is of Turkish descent, born and brought up in London. She moved to live in Turkey in 2005 and has been writing full time since then.

(Copyright 2008 Fazile Zahir.)

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