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Victorian owner-breeder Ralph Zito and his wife Peta, with racing partners, won last Sunday’s Sale Quality with Leodoro – a horse close to their hearts.

Steve Moran | 07.02.2018

Where to begin the story of the intriguing Signore Zito - specialist pathologist, breeder and olive oil producer?

Perhaps in 1950 when his father Giuseppe emigrated from a troubled post-war Italy. Son Raffaele followed, with his mother Concetta, in September the following year. “We’ll call you Ralph,” his first Australian teacher told him. These days, ironically, there’s any number of Raff’s and Rafael’s enrolled at primary schools and not necessarily of European extraction. Perhaps courtesy of Señor Nadal.


His father was a painter but not of the Caravaggio school, pardon the racing pun. “Although he and my mother were both top of their class, their education was limited to grade five for economic and gender reasons. After migrating, dad worked for the railways and painted trains… until he and mum established one of the first Family Fare self service groceries in Coburg in the late 1950s. Due to my mother falling ill, we then returned briefly to Italy before resettling in Australia in 1963,” Zito said.


Or we could fast forward to the mid 1990s when friend Angela Dupuche, daughter of Wally Broderick who owned the 1965 Melbourne Cup winner Light Fingers, took him to the Mornington stables of former New Zealander Theo Howe.


“I’d had a lifelong interest in racing which really began with a fascination for horse’s names and I was later to read a lot of books on breeding, but at the time this was a new experience for me – going to the stables and I immediately loved it. Loved the smell and feel of it,” he said.


That fateful morning, he was to inspect two horses – bred by well known New Zealander Bernie Vanston – out of the Three Legs mare Princess Phoenix. They were Desert Phoenix (Desert Sun) and Steel Phoenix (Nassipour).


“I spent the next two weeks manually analysing their pedigrees and then rang Bernie. We spoke for three and a half to four hours on the phone and, by the end of the call, I’d taken a share in both horses,” he said.


Steel Phoenix, who would later twice win the Chairman’s Handicap won on debut at Cranbourne in September 1977 and Desert Phoenix did likewise at Mornington eleven months later. “The die was cast,” Zito said.


Indeed it was with Zito, influenced by the most famous of Italians – at least in the racing and breeding game, Federico Tesio; to embark on passionate breeding endeavours beginning with two daughters of Princess Phoenix whose grand-dam Sanctimonious had produced the high class King Phoenix, whose victories included the MRC (then VATC) Group One double of the Rupert Clarke Stakes (then Marlboro Cup) and Toorak Handicap (then Elders Mile).


Those daughters were Shu Shu Lara and Te Akau. The former would produce the Zito’s Group Three Proud Miss Stakes winner Miss Steele who will be doubly responsible for maintaining, if not expanding, the family’s breeding interest.


Miss Steele, now in foal to Frosted, has a filly foal by Medaglia D’Oro born in September last year and she may well be on the market next year. “We might sell her. You can’t make ends meet by breeding non-commercially and while it was a huge financial risk to go to a stallion like Medaglia D’Oro, he was the best mating for her.


“While Steel Phoenix is probably the best horse we’ve had, our best result as owner-breeders was certainly Miss Steele winning the Group Three as our whole aim was to produce a black type mare,” Zito said. That success was among the 80 odd wins by horses they’ve bred and/or raced.


Plus, the proceeds of Miss Steele’s Group Three win were reinvested in the purchase of Hussonet mare North Sea who was in foal to Smart Missile. It was pinhooked to the China Horse Club and races as Aim Smart in New Zealand, where he was Group Three-placed last September from just four starts.


“We bought her to mate with Statue Of Liberty which is an incomparable pedigree and we have an unraced two-year-old colt named Sea Wolf with Michael Kent,” he said. Kent, of course, also trains Leodoro and did train Miss Steele.


Zito also has the Rory’s Jester mare Canicula who has a Zoustar filly to be offered at the Inglis Premier Yearling Sale (Lot 289).


He will approach the sales with some apprehension after his experience with Aim Smart who was assessed by the sales house as among ‘the best half dozen colts’ in the sale but attracted few bids after his X-rays were deemed a risk. His purchaser transferred him to New Zealand and he was on-sold at the New Zealand Ready To Run Sale. On debut, he beat subsequent Group winner Summer Passage.


“I am sceptical about the interpretation of X-rays. Yes, when there is something glaring they can be useful but generally I believe they are massively over-played in the sales setting. There’s a lot of defensive reporting which is not a result of a good, evidence based medicine.


“I would like to see specialists reporting on the X-rays, just as you would rather have a specialist radiologist assess your own (X-rays),” Zito said, adding that Lot 289’s X-rays are perfect!


Te Akau, the second of the aforementioned daughters of Princess Phoenix, is the dam of Jayemzed, who is the sire of Sunday’s winner Leodoro (out of the Colombia mare White Gold). Te Akau is also the dam of Tavette, who produced Nesbo, a winner at Caulfield on the same day as Leodoro in July last year, hile Bianca Bay, an unraced daughter of Te Akau by Bianconi is the dam of Group One Levin Classic winner Dukedom.


The Zito-bred half-sister to Leodoro is Mystic Journey, who is unbeaten in two starts in Tasmania and is nominated for next Sunday’s Elwick Stakes.


The Zitos also bred and raced Leodoro’s dam, White Gold and indeed his sire Jayemzed who now stands at Darnik Park near Maldon. Jayemzed was trained at Mornington by Theo Howe’s son Barry Howe and, in an injury shortened career, he won five races and landed a black type second in the Listed Anniversary Vase at Caulfield.


Jayemzed has sired just ten horses to race, with five winners among them, including the four-time winner in Victoria, the Shane Fliedner trained Bee Jay Zed (nominated for Moonee Valley this Friday night).


He’s back in Victoria, from Tasmania, where as Zito puts it: “He was a pampered houseguest of David and Trish Cochrane standing at Bowthorpe Stud  at Longford, Tasmania where he has covered a only handful of mares each year.


“We kept him as an entire as he was special to us (Jayemzed was named after the initials of the Zito’s son Joel Mathew Zito who was tragically killed in a car accident around the hour of his foaling in November 2002). He’d been pampered and taught by Barry (Howe) to ignore the fairer sex and was at a loss as to what to do the first time they brought him a mare but he was shown the ropes by his one of this fellow stallions, Azevedo.”


Jayemezed has only covered somewhere between two and five mares per year but he does have a few young ones coming through according to Zito.


“Aside from the sentimental value he holds for us, we would not have considered using him for breeding had it not been for his pedigree. He’s by a grandson of Mr Prospector from a grand daughter of Northern Dancer and carrying rare female strains of Somethingroyal not to mention Mixed Marriage. He had his own class as a racehorse and a perfect conformation,” he said.


Zito’s horses are now exclusively trained, in Victoria, by Michael Kent. “Like John Size, he has the ability to get a horse fit, keep it happy and have it perform on raceday, not the week before,” he said. Size trained Steel Phoenix, for Zito, on the recommendation of Theo Howe when the horse moved to Sydney.


“Michael (Kent) seemed very reserved, as he can be, at first when I met him but really opened up when I began to talk about breeding theories. I am impressed by his ability to go beyond merely looking at the horse and that he will embrace science where appropriate,” he said.


Zito has shared his racing interests with friends Joe and Rhonda Cichello and John and Diane Button since the death of Vanston. “We’ve been friends since form three at Fawkner High School. It’s called John Fawkner College now so we’re old collegians! We’ve been even closer over the past ten or twelve years with racing giving us another reason to socialise,” he said.


Zito may be pedigree passionate but, refreshingly, is not myopic about the pursuit. “There are so many factors in making a successful horse but I would argue that pedigree is the starting point, reinforcing strong ancestors. Like my compatriot Tesio, I believe in line-breeding which is the path most successful long term breeders have followed,” he said.


He also acknowledges that, from personal experience, good looks and intelligence may well be inherited from the dam side!


The Zito horses carry the distinctive colours of pink with black spots which could easily be mistaken for those which adorned Black Caviar. “I met the owners of Black Caviar at Royal Ascot in 2012 and joked they’d stolen our colours. However, I said that in deference to Black Caviar, if our horses ever meet we’ll take the club colours. The only sense of some annoyance is when people say we copied their colours,” he said.


As to their award winning Olio Zito Extra Virgin Olive Oil, even that has a racing connection.


They have 4000 trees planted on one quadrant of the four which were sold when former trainer Steve Watkins’ Cresta Two property, at Tuerong on the Mornington Peninsula, was subdivided. Others in the precinct being the exquisite training centre Denistoun Park and Tarcoola Stud.

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