It happened in the fall of 1973, but Verna Lehmann can still see the van in the driveway of her Paris, Ky. farm, see Dust Commander being loaded inside, the van pulling out along the barrier of trees to the gateway of the farm and the horse standing motionless and looking straight ahead through the bars of the van window. It was, she recalls, the most unsettling experience she has ever had in the horse business.
Dust Commander, her 1970 Kentucky Derby winner, had been sold to a syndicate of breeders in Japan, and he was on his way to an airplane chartered to take him there. Verna and her husband Robert had paid $6,500 for the son of Bold Commander, an obscure but well-bred son of the great sire Bold Ruler, at a yearling sale in Kentucky in 1968. He won a minor stakes race as a 2-year-old, but he was never considered a Derby contender, even when he won the Blue Grass Stakes in the mud nine days before the Derby. So few believed in him at Churchill Downs that he was sent off at more than 15 to 1. But he came charging off the pace in the stretch to win by five lengths. Dust Commander started 19 more times, winning only once, an allowance race at Churchill Downs.
Ten months after his Derby, he was retired to the stud at Golden Chance, the Lehmann farm. Although his fee was $1,500, a fire-sale price, he attracted so little interest that the Lehmanns ended up giving away free services to him. After he had stood at Golden Chance for three seasons, the Japanese offered $500,000 for him. "I wasn't interested in the money," Verna says. "I wanted the horse. I was proud of him. He was the Derby winner. I wanted to keep him." But Lehmann said he had decided to sell and his wife told him he was the boss, and that ended it.
Thus was Dust Commander consigned to the oblivion reserved for those American stallions who have failed or for whom failure is foreseen. For a stud horse to be sent to Japan or Venezuela or New Zealand is kind of like a ballplayer being waived to Triple A. You still play, but no one much notices you anymore. Apparently, the Derby was a fluke, and there was no way this little chestnut was going to sire anything of any account. "I figured I'd never see him again," Verna Lehmann says.
As might be expected, the fates of the 105 horses who have won the Kentucky Derby have varied. A number retired to stud and grew in stature—War Admiral (1937), Count Fleet (1943) and Northern Dancer (1964) did especially well—but more declined into obscurity. The 1876 winner, Vagrant, ended up pulling a cart through the streets of Lexington. Lord Murphy (1879) was sent to England. After four disappointing races, he was sold at public auction for 10 guineas, about $50. Typhoon II (1897) fared even worse. He was gelded sometime after the Derby and wound up between the shafts of a milk wagon in Indianapolis. And there was poor old Rosebud (1914), one of the greatest of all, a gelding, who held the Derby record of 2:03[2/5] for 17 years. Plagued by unsoundness, he broke down in a claiming race at New York's old Jamaica track and was destroyed. He was 11.
Sir Barton (1919) was the first horse to win the Triple Crown, but he never reproduced a glimmer of himself at stud. Turned over to the U.S. Army in 1933, a failure as a sire of racehorses, he ended up at a cavalry remount station at Fort Robinson, Neb., servicing government mares. He finished out his days on a ranch near Douglas, Wyo. Whiskery (1927), who proved to be sterile, became the night watchman's horse on a farm in Virginia. One night he walked into a tree and lost an eye. Another night he walked into another tree, hurt a leg and had to be destroyed. Clyde Van Dusen (1929), a gelded son of Man o' War, became a stable pony for Clyde Van Dusen, the trainer for whom he was named. Black Gold (1924) was sterile, as were Twenty Grand (1931) and Assault (1946), a Triple Crown winner.
Omaha (1935), also a Triple Crown winner, failed at stud and spent his final years at a farm in Nebraska City. The celebrated Whirlaway (1941), another Triple Crown winner, failed, too; he died in a breeding shed in France in 1953. Iron Liege (1957), who beat Gallant Man (that was the year Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and eased Gallant Man at the [1/16] pole), died at stud in Japan in 1971. Chateaugay (1963) was sold for $450,000 to a Japanese syndicate, and if anyone asks you how he is doing, just say offhandedly, "Well, one of his sons, Shimano Katsuba, won the Kinhai Gold Cup in 1978." Both Dancer's Image, who won the 1968 Derby only to be disqualified for having been given an illegal medication, and the horse awarded first place in the race, Forward Pass, also stand in Japan, which has sort of taken over where the remount stations left off. Then there is Venezuela, now home to Lucky Debonair (1965). A syndicate of Venezuelan breeders bought him for $260,000 in 1975.
Of course, a good many winners stayed close to home. Needles (1956) is in Ocala, Fla., where he was a sire for 21 years until his retirement in 1977. The old bay stretch runner never got that one big horse, that classic winner for which all breeders wait, but his fee held at $5,000, live foal, and he ended up with a large family, about 350 offspring in all, which won upwards of $6 million. At 27, Needles is the oldest living Derby winner. His back is swayed and he's beginning to sprout gray hairs, but he still sashays when his caretaker, Willie Riley, takes him out to graze.
"Oh, he's a ham!" Riley says. "Loves attention. The groups come here, and he'll stand and pose while they take his picture. He still gets cards, and people send carrots. He's content. He's doing good for a horse his age. He can still see you well, but he can't hear too good. I'll come to call him in his paddock and he'll be standing behind a tree sleeping. I'll holler to get his attention and he'll stand there asleep. I have to go down there to wake him up."
On retiring from racing, most Derby winners go back to Kentucky, the center of the world's bloodstock industry. Miles of oak post-and-rail fencing form its geometry. It is here, on a handful of these vast, magnificent studs, places like Claiborne, Spendthrift and Gainesway, that the winners of the 10 Derbies from 1969 through 1978 are housed, pastured, groomed and bred to mares who wait their turns outside the breeding sheds. The 1979 winner, Spectacular Bid, is ticketed for Claiborne after this, his last magnificent racing season, in which he has already won $425,600.
Among the most elegant of these spreads is Spendthrift Farm. In the U-shaped Nashua Motel, the main stallion barn, named after its oldest and most respected tenant, are three Derby winners—Majestic Prince (1969), who has already found success at stud, and the Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
Affirmed was just about the coolest customer on the racetrack, as calm as a pony. But after being syndicated for $14.4 million to stand at stud, his demeanor changed. "He's a different horse since he bred his first mare," says groom Gerard O'Brien. "When he came here he was a quiet horse. When we first bred him, it took him just a couple of seconds to get it together, and he's been looking for more and more ever since. Now he's unpredictable when he's around mares, very aggressive and excitable. He starts making noise and jumping around. I have to tie him up in his stall when we're breeding other horses."
Watching Seattle Slew trying to crawl out of his coat on the racetrack, one would have thought he would be a dragon snorting fire in the breeding shed. He's anything but. A bashful sort, Slew sometimes has to be introduced to a mare more than twice in a day before he takes any interest in her, not that he has any trouble getting mares in foal—40 of 44 last spring—once he makes up his mind.
Riva Ridge (1972), who stands at Claiborne, is no tiger in the shed, either, and in that respect appears to have changed little from his days at the track. "He's just about the kindest stallion I've ever seen," says Gus Koch, assistant manager at Claiborne. Nor has Secretariat (1973) changed; he relishes his work at Claiborne as much as he did racing. He hasn't been the stallion breeders were hoping for after Triple Crown victories, but he has sired some big winners, notably General Assembly and Terlingua, and his progeny are still in demand.
But the Blue Grass is an unsentimental region where failure is forgiven in no horse, where value is measured by the quality of the runners a stallion produces. The mediocre fall quickly out of favor, regardless of their names. Two years ago at Gainesway Farm, one of the most exciting Derby winners of modern times, Canonero II (1971), was quietly moved from the main stallion barn to a smaller annex. When he went to stud in 1973, his fee was $10,000, but he has failed to sire one stakes winner. He still looks grand, as bold-looking as a bronze statue of a Civil War general's horse, but his fee is now $1,500.
And then there is Dust Commander. Last fall John Gaines, the master of Gainesway, concluding two years of negotiations with the Japanese, brought him home again. Despite the sour prognostications, his career at stud had been remarkable. His first crop to go to the races included a Preakness winner, Master Derby. By the time he was acquired by Gainesway, Dust Commander had sired winners of $4,467,000. Run Dusty Run, who finished second to Slew in the Derby and Preakness and third to him in the Belmont Stakes, was in Dust Commander's third crop. Despite the generally nondescript mares to whom he was bred in those first three years in Kentucky, Dust Commander had 53 winners—seven of them stakes winners—among 62 sons and daughters who got to the races.
"His first three crops were sensational," says Gaines. "I was determined to return him to the U.S." And so he did. Gaines syndicated the former $6,500 yearling, the fluke Derby winner, the Japanese castoff, for $6.75 million. The $1,500 stud fee of 1971-73 has soared to $50,000.
Robert Lehmann never knew what he had sold. He died in January of 1974, before Master Derby ever ran a race. When Dust Commander came home, television cameras were there to greet him at the Lexington airport. So was Verna Lehmann, who figured wrong. "I'm thrilled," she told Gaines. "It's one of the happiest days of my life in the horse business."