'MIKE AND THIS HORSE NEEDED EACH OTHER'
Robert E. Lehmann, born 49 years ago in Fremont, Ohio, is a slightly built, unassuming man who believes in good-luck charms and superstitions and is so delightfully frank that he says defiantly, "It would mean twice as much to me to shoot a record tiger as to win the Kentucky Derby." Within nine days during the last fortnight, Lehmann, a retired construction company executive with comparatively new thoroughbred holdings in Florida and Kentucky, managed to achieve this wildly improbable tiger-Derby double.
Although seeming hot, bothered and bewildered as the champagne flowed in his direction at Churchill Downs last Saturday evening, Lehmann unabashedly set the record even straighter. "Of all the 100,000 people here today, I'm the most surprised," he said.
Maybe not, because there were a lot of surprised—and mortified—faces around the old track after the Derby, but surprised he was certainly entitled to be. His $6,500 purchase, Dust Commander, trained by a virtual rookie in big-time racing, Don Combs, and ridden by Jockey Mike Manganello, had just won the 96th Kentucky Derby by five convincing lengths in one of the major upsets of the last two decades. The elaborate Churchill Downs press brochure, which gave detailed histories on 18 possible Derby runners and 22 jockeys, failed to include a single word about any member of the victorious combination. Yet the week before the Derby Dust Commander had won the mile-and-an-eighth Blue Grass Stakes, becoming the seventh horse in the last 12 years to use the Blue Grass as a steppingstone to victory at Churchill Downs.
May 10, 1970
On Blue Grass Day, April 23—which also happened to be his 49th birthday—Lehmann was 8,000 miles away from storm-ridden Keeneland on one of his twice-a-year hunting expeditions. "I think I have one of the largest private collections of big-game trophies in the world," he muses, "and I wouldn't give up one of my trips even if my wife was having a baby." The Blue Grass ranked well below a baby to Lehmann, but it was a little bundle on the way to a bigger bundle. "I told Don Combs and my wife," he recalled, "that if we ran one, two or three in the Blue Grass, let's run back in the Derby. If we didn't, let's forget it. I expected them to send me a telegram, and then I went off and forgot about it."
At Blue Grass post time, give or take a few time zones, Lehmann was winding up an 11-day stint in a treetop shooting stand waiting for a tiger on the India-Nepal border, some 140 miles from Lucknow. "A year ago," he said, "I went out there and sat for 21 days, 14 hours a day, waiting to shoot a tiger that had killed 117 villagers in the surrounding countryside. I got him on the 21st day. This time I had already killed one leopard and a tiger, but I was after a record. I decided to stick it out, even if it meant not getting back for the Derby—no matter what Dust Commander did in the Blue Grass." On the 11th day of his watch Lehmann sat motionless in his stand. "You don't dare cough or even swat at a mosquito," he said. "You just sit and wait. We had a young buffalo staked out as bait nearby in this wild region of the Himalayan foothills. Suddenly I saw the tall grass moving. It was a tiger approaching. I let him get to within 75 feet of me before I killed him with a .300 Weatherby Magnum."
At Keeneland, Dust Commander was eliminating Corn Off The Cob, Naskra and Protanto in the Blue Grass. Most observers felt the colt won only because of the sloppy going, but Mrs. Lehmann and Trainer Combs dutifully dispatched a cable to the Indian wilds with the glad tidings, and awaited confirmation to march on Louisville. But the cable had never arrived. Two days later, happily, Lehmann telephoned his wife from Calcutta, heard the good news and made plans to return to Kentucky—mostly, he admits, because he had attained his hunting goal and not because of any frenzied desire to run in the Derby or even to see it. "How can you compare the excitement of the two sports?" the heretic asks. "In one you sit patiently for days and days waiting for the right moment, and what a satisfaction when it comes! In the other you spend two minutes watching a horse race, and then it's all over. I must say I prefer the former."
The owner of some 30 broodmares and about two dozen horses in training, Lehmann joined a motley gathering of Derby figures in Louisville last week. Arriving less than 24 hours before post time, he found a cast that included few of the renowned names of past Derbies other than Jockeys Bill Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Braulio Baeza and Milo Valenzuela.
Some owners and trainers had never seen a Derby before, much less started in one. Before it was over, many must have wished they had never dragged their horses to the Downs. No fewer than 18 passed the entry box Thursday morning, when it seemed that more colts had a chance to win this year than had started a year ago. And speculation was rampant as to which ones appeared to be legitimate starters and which would do what over what kind of a running surface.
Louisville whiskey magnate W.L. Lyons Brown wanted his turquoise-and-white silks on display in the old home town and thus gave Diane Crump the opportunity to become the first girl jockey ever to ride in the Derby. She and her colt, Fathom, beat one horse, the pacesetting Rancho Lejos, who slowed to a tired crawl after less than a mile.
George Lewis ran against the wishes of his trainer, Buster Millerick, and his jockey, Bill Hartack. They knew well that a colt who has developed a cough during Derby Week is hardly suited to going 10 furlongs against the best of his generation, no matter how lacking in class they might be. But Owners Alan and Phyllis Magerman were determined to give it a go—and were rewarded with a 14th-place finish.
Rain in Louisville through most of Derby Week bothered other potential starters. Corn Off The Cob, Dr. Behrman and Naskra weren't going to relish an off track. And when Corn Off The Cob drew the outside post and Personality drew No. 17 just inside him, the groans deepened. Backstretch visitors concentrated on Derby Barns No. 41 and No. 42, and avoided Barn No. 19 as if Don Combs and all the Lehmann horses stabled there had the pox. That left Combs unperturbed, for this handsome, 31-year-old sideburned man with the tact and poise that his elders might envy knew exactly what he was about. And he knew, too, exactly what kind of a horse he was dealing with. After the Blue Grass he had told a small audience that Dust Commander—a son of Bold Commander (by Bold Ruler) out of the Windy City II mare Dust Storm—was a colt who "thrives on distance." He added then—with a grin—"And I wouldn't mind one bit if it comes up muddy in Louisville next week. This is a little colt, maybe 15 hands 1 inch, but I think this makes him more maneuverable. I also think some of the others won't like the distance."
Combs may not have gotten the sloppy track he wanted, but on Derby Day, after nearly an all-night rain, the sun dried out the hard strip to the point where it was listed as "good." To a horse that means "tiring." The sprinter types with what is called cheap speed would not stand much of a chance, and the race was clearly going to develop into a test among colts endowed with stamina. (One prospect who fitted this category, Protanto, was hurt the day before the Derby and will be lost for several months.)
Dust Commander had won his Blue Grass by taking the rail, holding it, saving ground and wearing down the leader. Corn Off The Cob, in the stretch. That was in a field of 10. Last Saturday, Jockey Manganello, a 29-year-old who has ridden for 11 years, got away with the same tactic and won the Derby with the assistance of fine judgment and racing luck. He retained his cool, got his breaks and made the most of them. He won as he pleased to turn the race into a shambles; behind him, 16 rivals gasped and staggered their way home.
As the 17 left the two gates at the head of the stretch Rancho Lejos shot to the lead. Hartack and George Lewis were right behind him, followed by Silent Screen and Johnny Rotz, perfectly positioned. My Dad George, the favorite, was 14th, Personality ninth, Naskra 10th and stretch-running High Echelon 17th. Dust Commander, bumped early but saving ground around the clubhouse turn, was on the rail in sixth place, just behind Corn Off The Cob and just ahead of Terlago. Nobody expected Rancho Lejos to go on for long, and he began to chuck it as the field headed for the far turn. There Silent Screen swiftly moved up to take the lead from George Lewis. Corn Off The Cob put in a run to take over third position, and Native Royalty gave it a momentary try to move into fourth, with My Dad George steaming along fifth. Mike Manganello was sitting patiently, still on the inside, in seventh place after slipping around the fading Rancho Lejos. Here Hector Pilar, aboard Holy Land, attempted to get through in close quarters and drove his long shot up on the heels of My Dad George. Holy Land stumbled to his knees, tossing Pilar, and both Action Getter and Admiral's Shield, coming up behind, were forced to jump the struggling horse and rider to avoid possibly serious trouble for all. The maneuver cost both these stragglers whatever chance they might have had. It was, incidentally, the first case of a fallen Derby rider since Granville lost Jimmy Stout at the start of the 1936 race.
Turning for home and the long stretch, it looked briefly like Silent Screen's race—that is, if the chestnut son of Prince John had it in him to be a real distance horse. He had a length on tiring George Lewis, appeared to be pulling away from Corn Off The Cob, and My Dad George seemed to be no serious threat. But with an abrupt and amazing burst of acceleration came Dust Commander. Manganello, seeing his chance, shot the Commander to the outside of My Dad George and George Lewis and to the inside of Corn Off The Cob. Then he took off in pursuit of Silent Screen.
There was no contest. By the eighth pole Silent Screen was beaten by a length and a half, and Dust Commander drew out to an easy five-length margin over My Dad George. The favorite finished half a length in front of High Echelon, who had only a head over Naskra. Silent Screen was fifth. Behind them, spread halfway up the race track and trailed by the riderless Holy Land, came Admiral's Shield, Corn Off The Cob, Personality, Native Royalty, Robin's Bug, Terlago, Dr. Behrman, Action Getter, George Lewis, Fathom and Rancho Lejos. The winner's time, a slow 2:03⅖ was irrelevant in view of the "dead" track.
What is significant is that young Don Combs, who has been training on his own for less than three years after some valuable apprenticeship under Herman Goodpaster, succeeded in an endeavor that has stymied some veteran trainers for years and years. "Let's say that Mike and this horse needed each other," he commented. "They understand each other. The colt bruised his right front foot in the Dade Metropolitan Handicap at Tropical Park on Jan. 10, and we gave him a month off. It may have been a blessing in disguise because we never even tried after that to point him for the Flamingo or Florida Derby. We just gave him time. After he ran poorly in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream we brought him to Keeneland, and I put Mike on him."
Most of the beaten Derby horses had no excuse. Classic colts are supposed to be sufficiently gifted to adapt to various track conditions. The fact that the riders aboard such as Terlago, Personality, Corn Off The Cob and Dr. Behrman later claimed that their mounts were unable to contend with the drying surface means little. Ray Broussard, who rides My Dad George, came closest to the truth when he admitted, "We just got outrun. We may have run a good race, but we were also beat by the best horse—the best horse today, that is." He could have been saying it for all of them.
Dust Commander may be small, but he certainly seems to be durable. The Derby was his 23rd lifetime start and the ninth this year, and the $127,800 he earned increased his purses to $181,604. He was not nominated to either the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes, but now he could be supplemented to both. However, he developed some heat in the left front ankle two days after the Derby, and his starting status in next week's Preakness remained uncertain.
At the Churchill Downs victory party Robert Lehmann couldn't get away from that tiger hunt and his good-luck omens. Racetrackers were surrounding him in hopes of some special insight on how he achieved his Derby victory with a $6,500 purchase. "Listen," he said, "maybe I'm just lucky, but I believe in taking your luck with you. I always have some with me." He fished into his pants. From the left pocket he brought out a rosary; from the right four bones. Four what? Yes, bones. "Now, this rosary," said Lehmann, "I've carried it every day of my life since my grandmother gave it to me when I was 7, at my first Communion. These bones are something different. There are two pair here, one from a leopard and one from a tiger. They are lucky bones, the loose floating bones that come from the side of the neck of the cat family. I must be lucky these days, because the tiger I just killed was over 10 feet and between 600 and 700 pounds, probably within three or four inches of a record when they get around to checking it out."
How about the Preakness? "I don't know about that," he said. "But I do know one thing—for the first time in my racing career I'll have no trouble getting stalls."
"You are so right," boomed a voice at close range.
Lehmann turned to meet the stranger who introduced himself. "I'm Chick Lang, director of racing at Pimlico. Now, Mr. Lehmann, about your stall requirements and other arrangements at Pimlico...."