Honor of a Lifetime

photo by Doug Beigie Photography
photo by Doug Beigie Photography

Honor of a Lifetime

From sire to sire, It’s born in the blood
The fire from a mare and the strength of a stud
It’s breeding and it’s training and it’s something unknown
That drives you and carries you home
And it’s run for the roses as fast as you can
Your fate is delivered, your moment’s at hand
It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined in the dance

—“Run for the Roses” by Dan Fogelberg

The Kentucky Derby, also known as the Run for the Roses, has been labeled the most exciting two minutes in sports. Most of us are familiar with the pomp and circumstance surrounding the derby—hats, mint juleps, twin spires, and the bugler. However, most people have no idea just how rare it is for a horse to qualify and just how much time and preparation goes into the whole derby experience.

The annual foal crop in the United States is about 20,000, and only 20 or 0.001% of each crop qualifies for the Kentucky Derby (pennhorseracing.com). Starting each fall, horses can run in derby prep races and begin earning points toward the Run for the Roses. Texarkana residents, Kerry and Alan Ribble, put themselves on a path to achieve the lofty goal of sitting in an owner’s suite at Churchill Downs on derby day. Their journey to the derby has been a spectacular one, filled with highs and lows, laughter and tears, and an unbreakable bond among family, friends, jockeys, trainers, and owners.

Alan and Kerry’s daughter Sarah reflected on her parents’ luck on the eve of the derby as everyone in the Honor Marie entourage mentally prepared for the day ahead. “Luck certainly plays a role in success, but the essence of true achievement lies in the pursuit itself–the countless hours of preparation, resilience in the face of setbacks, and the courage to chase something that seems out of reach. No matter tomorrow’s outcome, I’ll never forget watching my parents show me the value of completely immersing oneself in a goal. And it sure seems the harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Alan and Kerry first encountered their derby contender in a horse auction at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. The Ribbles, along with Kyle Zorn, Travis Durr, and Kristian Villante (Who later formed Legion Bloodstock) attended the auction and looked at 600-800 horses, took notes, and made bids. They purchased the yearling of sire, Honor Code, and mare, DameMarie, for a mere $40,000. The horse broke its maiden and was on a path to run in the derby against horses costing more than $2 million.

Kerry and Alan also had the opportunity to name the horse Honor Marie. It is customary for the horse to be named from the stud’s and the mare’s names, and in this case, the name was even more special due to one of their nine grandchildren being named Marie. Marie was present throughout many of the derby week activities and garnered quite a bit of attention as she traveled about the backside of the track and around town in Louisville with her family. Kerry jokingly said their next horse would be named “The Other Eight.”

An early-morning visit to the barn at Churchill Downs provides an opportunity for friends and family to meet the Legion Bloodstock team and their trainer, Whit Beckman.

photo by Doug Beigie Photography

The guys from Legion Bloodstock, a firm that buys and sells thoroughbred horses on behalf of their clients, speak highly of their inaugural buyers, the Ribbles, and enjoy a solid partnership in which both sides have a true love for the horses and passion for the sport. According to Zorn, it is not uncommon for Kerry and him to think alike and “worry” about the same things. “People have no idea how hard it is just to get here. You have the points system and the build-up. Everything you do and everything that happens with the horse is scrutinized. It really helps to have someone to bounce ideas off.”

Zorn considers it an honor to be in the Churchill barn area among the iconic trainers and owners he has revered all his life. “I am a fan of great trainers, and it’s an amazing feat to get to the derby year after year. But it is also nice to see a fresh face make it to this level. To see a guy like Whit get here and have a chance to win it is pretty special.”

Whit Beckman, Honor Marie’s up-and-coming trainer, enjoys a strong connection with Kerry and Alan and refers to them as the type of people you want in the barn. “They are salt-of-the-earth, dedicated, and loyal. I am excited to have previously experienced the adrenaline rush of winning with them.” Beckman, a Louisville native, says to have the opportunity to be on the biggest stage on the biggest day in horse racing is a dream come true. He is thankful for the outpouring of support and heartfelt connections he has experienced through Honor Marie’s journey to the derby. “When we are manifesting anything in our lives, and we think about the service we can do for others and not just ourselves, that’s what grows and turns our dreams into reality,” he said.

Beckman describes Honor Marie as an intelligent horse with the “it factor.” “I don’t have to train around anything. He knows who he is and what he is here to do.” Zorn adds, “He is built like an old-fashioned route horse. He’s not flashy. He has no quirks and does the same thing day in and day out. He’s a working man’s horse.” Both men agree they love the horse and the journey he has made possible. Zorn says the road to the Kentucky Derby is the most stress and the most fun you will ever experience. “It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s what the horse did.” However, he states, “A good horse will take you on a ride you’ll never forget, but it’s people you share the experiences with that make the memories you will always cherish.”

As Conner Ribble, Kerry and Alan’s son, reflects on derby day, he says, “Seeing people live out their dreams right before my eyes was truly special. Moments before the race, my heart was beating so fast. The last time I felt that way was moments before I proposed to my wife. The team, the trainer, and my mom and dad envisioned themselves ending up here. I will never forget seeing the joy on my parents’ faces as they hugged after the race was over.”

Kerry agrees. “I am thankful my own kids got to be there and see behind the scenes and understand our love for the horses. The connections and the feeling of putting your feet in the dirt on the track at Churchill, looking up at the Twin Spires, and walking your horse to the paddock for the Kentucky Derby is surreal. I am just an ordinary girl having an extraordinary experience. Our horses are our heroes, but our connections keep us seeking those heroes.”

Honor Marie finished eighth on derby day after getting off to a rough start coming out of the gate. Although he didn’t win, he gave us an experience we will never forget. Thank you, Kerry and Alan, for giving us a Texarkana derby connection, and thank you, Honor Marie, for the honor of a lifetime.

photo by Doug Beigie Photography

After being told how “lucky” he was to have a horse in the derby, Alan describes the seven “lucky breaks” that led him from an occasional spectator at Oaklawn Hot Springs to owning a derby starter...

  1. Meeting Bess Sanders and Kelly Lassiter in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Once we mentioned we wanted to get involved at Oaklawn, they set us up with box seats and started introducing us to their friends at the track. They introduced me to jockey Terry Thompson, who recommended our trainer if we wanted to buy a horse.
  2. Having David Vance be our trainer and Lynn Vance as our guide to ownership of horses. They showed us how much fun it was to own a winning horse and led us through the ins and outs of ownership.
  3. Meeting my friend, Gary Elmore, who told me to talk to Kyle Zorn about getting a “Saturday” horse. If Gary hadn’t told me his name, I never would have noticed his name tag at the Saratoga auction.
  4. Meeting Kyle Zorn. He was most gracious to meet two strangers from Arkansas for lunch and start explaining the many different avenues of horse ownership.
  5. Lucky for me, Kyle was a partner of Travis Durr and Kristian Villante. Their expertise with horses is beyond my comprehension. It bothers me that anyone would think their ability to buy good horses at decent prices is luck. They have all spent many years learning to spot a potentially good horse and that ability should be recognized.
  6. Luckily, Kyle Zorn, Travis Durr, and Kristian Villante knew Whit Beckman and recognized his ability and chose him as a trainer for our horse, Honor Marie. I don’t think any other trainer would have taken that horse and given him a chance to be great.
  7. I am so lucky to have Kerry as a partner in life and this horse-owning adventure. Not many people have a wife who will plan a trip around lunch with some “horse guy” in Lexington or vacation to a four-day horse auction and spend hours each day watching the guys look at horses. Having someone to share the highs and lows of this business is a priceless gift. I think that if I gave her perfume that smelled like old hay and fresh manure, she would tell me she loves it. She has made this adventure so much more enjoyable than it could ever have been alone.

Looking back on these lucky breaks, next time someone tells me how lucky I am to have had a horse in the derby, I’ll just smile and say, “Yes, I Am.”


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