When he gets to talking seriously—which is whenever there is a prospective customer within a couple of hundred miles of his Lexington, Ky. farm—Leslie Combs really lays it in there. "If you want to get into racing the right way, not just some little itty-bitty operation that is hit-or-miss and will probably lose you all your money anyway, you've got to be prepared for a four-year program and spend $1 million." Before the listener can recoil all the way out of the paneled office to the safety of his car. Combs gives him that intense owl-like stare, throws his blue eyes into twinkle-and-flutter gear and adds with a disarming smile, "And in order to avoid getting into the business the wrong way, you'd naturally want to come and buy your horses and get advice from good old Cousin Leslie, now wouldn't you?"
Startling as this direct, fastball pitch may sound, it has elevated Combs to the very top rank among market breeders of Thoroughbred racehorses. For the first five months of this year Combs and his partners were the leading money-winning breeders, surpassing even Bull Hancock's Claiborne Farm, the nation's leader in 1968. "Bull and I aren't really rivals," says Cousin Leslie cautiously as he thumbs through the Daily Racing Form to see what Claiborne-bred horses did in the previous day's races. (The doings of his own Spendthrift Farm-bred horses have already been marked by red crayon in the Form that Combs receives early each morning.) "Bull breeds to race, mostly in partnership with Bill Perry, and thus he is not a market breeder like I am. People try to promote a feud between us, but there really isn't one. As long as we stick together we've got 'em over a barrel."
This Monday evening some 30 Spendthrift yearlings-22 colts and eight fillies—will be led gingerly into the pavilion of the Keeneland Summer Sales. As he does every year about this time, Cousin Leslie is telling Spendthrift visitors that his current crop is his best ever and that he has every hope of topping the sales, which will hardly be news since he has been the leading seller at Keeneland for 19 straight years, during which time he has sold $15,565,100 worth of yearlings. His best year was 1964. when six head averaged $67,666. Last July, 26 head brought $1,457,000, an average of $56,039. And in July of 1967 the 28 Spendthrift yearlings brought $1,181,500. That was the occasion when one of Combs' steady customers, Frank McMahon, shelled out $250,000 for a chestnut beauty by Raise a Native out of the mare Gay Hostess and subsequently named him Majestic Prince.
Leslie Combs is not especially delirious over the fact that McMahon has since revealed his half-ownership of the mare (The Man Takes Charge of His Horse, June 2), for it will obviously affect the bidding when the Prince's full brother walks into the Keeneland ring in July of 1970. "I thought Majestic Prince was the best colt I ever raised," Combs said recently. "But now I've changed my mind. His brother is the best-looking young colt I've ever seen. When he comes into that sales ring next summer, it's going to be something. I'm going to announce that McMahon owns half of the dam and further state that both of us may bid. I just want Frank to have his chips ready because old Cousin Leslie might wind up buying this colt himself!" Combs also intends to let it be known that of his 30-head consignment this week McMahon is also half-owner of two of the dams. They are Red Tulip (by Jet Pilot), the dam of a Bold Bidder colt, and Save Time (by War Admiral), the dam of a Graustark filly. "I don't necessarily agree that the name of everyone connected with the breeding of a yearling should be listed in the sales catalog," says Combs, somewhat resentfully. "I buy a few yearlings privately now and then, too, but when I put them into the sales I think it is sufficient to list them merely as 'Property of Spendthrift Farm (Leslie Combs II).' "
From the day in 1937 when Combs started building up Spendthrift by purchasing 127 acres at an average cost of $400 an acre (today's price: $8,000 an acre), the Spendthrift trademark has been virtually synonymous with success. Among the 38 stallions standing at Spendthrift are eight syndicated for $1 million or more, including Raise a Native, Nashua and Gallant Man. There are no fewer than 59 broodmares who have won stakes or produced stakes winners, and Combs is justifiably proud that he has sold more winners of $100,000 than any other American market breeder.
Not every customer has to arrive at the gates of Spendthrift in a Brinks truck. Stud services range from the $500 fee to breed to stallions like Tom Cat, Green Hornet and Rainy Lake, to $1,000 for Clem Pac, Dead Ahead, Iron Peg and Cornish Prince, to $5,000 for Jaipur and Jester, to $10,000 for Bald Eagle. Others, like Fleet Nasrullah, Gallant Man, Nashua, Never Bend, Proud Clarion, Raise a Native, Swaps and Turn-to, are all privately syndicated and unavailable except through private deals or breeding rights trades with respective owners.
Two of Combs' well-heeled clients are George D. Widener and Captain Harry F. Guggenheim, both of whom retire their stallions to stand at stud at Spendthrift and both of whom board their broodmares there. Each summer they remove their yearlings to their respective home training centers. Other clients, with no such facilities of their own. let Combs and his 200-man Spendthrift staff break their yearlings on the 6,100 acres of Kentucky bluegrass. Many of the youngsters wind up at Combs' newly acquired facilities at Tampa's Florida Downs (formerly Sunshine Park), where they spend the winter in light training before they are turned over to the client's regular trainer in the spring of their 2-year-old seasons.
Of the roughly 400 Thoroughbreds at Spendthrift. Combs' customers own all or part of about 300. They pay $180 a month for board, plus veterinary bills and other incidentals such as blacksmith fees. The rest of the stock belongs to Combs himself: his mares, their weanlings and the annual crop of yearlings that is paraded into the Keeneland sales ring each July. The whole package, including shares in the stallions, the mares, the rich land and the 14-room Southern colonial mansion in which Combs now lives alone (his wife, Dorothy, died last November), would bring about $25 million, making it undoubtedly the most valuable Thoroughbred holding the world has ever seen. Combs, who will be 68 this October, claims he never wants to get out of the horse business entirely, but he is thinking of cutting down on the Spendthrift operation. "I've had a lot of offers, including some to go public on a stock deal," he says, "but I haven't made up my mind yet and probably won't before the end of this year." One temptation that does not move Combs is continuing for the purpose of racing his Spendthrift-bred stock. "J race a few fillies only," he says, "and I keep them for breeding purposes. The reason I don't race any of my colts is that I could be criticized for trying to keep my best stock for myself instead of putting it in the sales. For the same reason I don't sell privately. Everything is for sale. The best go in the Keeneland Summer Sales. Only if any of the leftovers are passed over in the Fall Sales would I consider selling privately. That doesn't happen often."
What does happen often these days is that Combs' mornings and afternoons are spent in showing off the 30 yearlings who soon will find new owners. The new buyer who comes into the Combs fold is given Cousin Leslie's facts-of-life primer early on. "I tell him to buy colts if he is primarily interested in racing, but to buy fillies if he wants to breed later. I suggest that-he hit the middle of the price range, the $50,000 to $100,000 range, because that's where you'll get your best money value. Majestic Prince was an exception, and I expect his brother may be, too.
"When I say it will cost you $1 million to get into racing sensibly, I'm looking at it realistically, too. You should have a four-year program and plan to spend $200,000 a year buying. Buy five yearlings—three fillies and two colts—for each of the four years. At the end of four years you will have spent $800,000 on purchases, plus another $200,000 on boarding and training fees, etc., and you will own eight colts and 12 fillies, half of whom will have had ample chance to show you what they can do on the racetrack. The point is, if you've spent your money wisely you will either have won your investment out or have more than $1 million in value. Now, you know' you can't walk into places like Darby Dan or Greentree and buy well-bred stock. Those people breed to race, not to sell. That leaves you out in the cold. Logic says you should do your buying at Spendthrift."
Although much of Combs' background, through the Swigerts and Alexanders, is pure Kentucky (the name Spendthrift was that of the winner of the 1879 Belmont Stakes, bred by Daniel Swigert, and great grandsire of Man O' War), Leslie is often regarded as more of a businessman and administrator than a horseman. Still, he has spent two dozen years on the state racing commissions of West Virginia and Kentucky and served one term as president of the National Association of State Racing Commissioners. Just 22 years ago, after acquiring the stallion Beau Pere from the late Louis B. Mayer for $100,000, Combs decided to offer breeding services to some of his friends in order to "spread the risk around a little." Thus was born modern syndication of stallions, a financial manipulation that received worldwide recognition in 1955 when Combs and his carefully chosen syndicate partners won the sealed-bid competition for Nashua from the estate of the late William Woodward Jr. for $1,251,200. At 17, Nashua is still the showpiece of Spendthrift: 90,000 of last year's 100,000 visitors to the farm signed his guestbook.
For all the thousands of times that Combs has driven visitors through the lovely hilly terrain of Spendthrift, he never seems to tire of showing it off once more. And whether it be a drive up Linden Lane to the stately 200-year-old guesthouse or along the lush paddocks studded with oak, ash and walnut trees, he is never out of touch with his office staff or any of the foremen, all of whom can reach him through the mobile intercom system. He drives cautiously, always inspecting, always looking for flaws to be corrected.
On a recent tour he stopped for a moment to show a visitor his specially converted Greyhound bus, the Blue Goose, painted in the bright blue and orange colors of his racing silks, in which he takes all his cross-country trips and hauls as many as a dozen friends to nearby race meetings. Then the tour went on, past 55 acres of tobacco and pastures containing 150 head of Hereford. Finally, the pi√®ce de résistance: a paddock of broodmares grazing with their foals.
Combs stopped the car and walked slowly to the paddock fence. His blue eyes took in everything quickly and then focused on a 12-year-old chestnut mare, Gay Hostess, with a frisky colt by her side. "There he is," said Combs. "Majestic Prince's full brother, a faultless colt in every way. Oh, how I'd love to race this one for myself."
Combs drove slowly back to the office. There, he got up from his desk for the thousandth time to admire a portrait of his foundation mare, Myrtle-wood. Then he sat down to sign a stack of checks that had been placed before him by his personal secretary of 25 years, Mrs. Louise Judy. Between telephone calls he scribbled away. Suddenly he bounded past Mrs. Judy's desk to confront one of his foremen in the outer office. His voice rang out over the others: "How long have we been paying blacksmiths $4 to trim a horse's feet?"
"Why, ever since the price went up from $3, Mr. Combs."
"Imagine paying these robbers $1 a foot!" growled the man who could sell his empire for $25 million. "That's downright ridiculous!"