Leslie Combs

The charm of horse racing lies primarily in the animals that do it—their beauty, grace, power and their degree of class. But there is an undeniable attraction to the colorful human beings that make it happen. The purpose of this blog is to share my stories about some of these characters. My requisites in the selection: I had dealings with them, their antics and accomplishments should not be forgotten, and that at least most of them are no longer with us. Cot Campbell  

   You've heard of people who "broke the mold." Well, "Cousin" Leslie Combs is one of them.

   In his day, if he wasn't king of the horse business, he was in strong contention; and he was under the impression that he already owned that title.

   He would tell you he was going to sell you a horse, you were going to pay through the nose for it, and you were going to have the time of your life in the process. And then he would deliver the goods. He bred and sold some wonderful horses.

   I bought some horses from his Spendthrift Farm through the years, but I am a bargain buyer and, therefore, just a tiny blip on his radar screen. He didn't expend much of his legendary charm on me. He didn't want to run me off, but peewees like me were slim pickings for a salesman like Leslie who had two rows of seats in the Keeneland sales pavilion warmed by the affluent derrieres of such as Dolly Green, Art and Martha Appleton, Frank McMahon, Franklin Groves, John Olin, Martha Kilroe, Elizabeth Arden Graham, and John W. Hanes.

   Woody Stephens, the legendary trainer, used to say, "If you want to be a big flea, you gotta get on a big dog!"

   Believe me, that was the battle cry of Leslie Combs.

 Leslie Combs

Leslie Combs

   Monday night at the Keeneland summer select yearling sale was Combs Night, and Spendthrift might be selling as many as 18 yearlings. You can bet Cousin Leslie had planned painstakingly and struggled tirelessly to orchestrate the successful sale of each.

   And could he get the job done! He reigned for 15 consecutive years as Keeneland's top consignor and held the title three other years.

   Ryan Mahan, now head auctioneer at Keeneland, tells a typical Combs story. It took place when Mahan was a young bid spotter (assigned to Combs' section) on the July night the maestro was selling a Northern Dancer colt, a half brother to the great Mr. Prospector.

   When the clock struck eight that night and the auction staff began its announcements before the first horse was led in the ring, Combs and his guests were already well ensconced in their seats. The host had seen to it that the cocktail hour at the big house had started early enough for all guests to become sufficiently relaxed, and then he had hustled them into limousines so that the motorcade to Keeneland could get started at 7:30. This was a night for punctuality!

   Leslie had long since decided that one of his perennial sales-time guests, Dolly Green, who had been left half the real estate of downtown Los Angeles, should be favored with ownership of the beautifully bred colt that was the star of his consignment.

   Interesting, Keeneland was concerned about including the colt in its "select" sale. His front-end alignment was somewhat askew. As the Irish say, one leg went to Limerick and the other to County Cork! But Keeneland had been assured by Leslie that he had him sold and that the colt would bring one million dollars or more. Naturally, they took him.

   Arriving at the pavilion, the Spendthrift aggregation settled in the two rows of seats, with much last-minute stage direction from Cousin Leslie. The seating had to be finely tuned so that no heavy-hitters were left unattended out in left field.

   Leslie had situated himself next to Dolly Green, you may be sure.

   The big colt (for promotional purposes Combs referred to him as "Pretty Boy") was due to sell about 9:15 p.m., and Leslie's severe challenge was to see that Mrs. Green did not become bored during the hour and fifteen minutes she would be required to wait. In the interim Leslie had other important horses to sell, and he wanted to "can all the fruit" before and after Mrs. Green's anticipated featured transaction.

   The sale started. Spendthrift sold a filly and a colt early in the sale. Everything was humming along satisfactorily. But about 8:20 p.m. Dolly Green turned to Leslie and complained, "Leslie, I'm cold!"
   "Yes, Dolly, Keeneland does keep it too cold in here. I've told 'em about that! You just cuddle up next to Cousin Leslie," Combs leered.

   Feeling the need for some stimulus for the pending task, Leslie called out to Ryan Mahan, tuxedo-bedecked and spotting bids in the aisle ten feet away. "Hey there, Mr. Bid Spotter, my 'Pretty Boy' (the Mr. Prospector half brother) is gonna be in here in a few minutes, and you'll see the pretty boy that is going to win the Kentucky Derby!" He squeezed Dolly's arm delightedly. Ryan, fully cognizant of the drill, smiled responsively and nodded vigorously.

   Ten minutes went by, and Dolly's attention span was in serious trouble. "Leslie, I'm freezing! It's uncomfortable in here."

   "It certainly is, Dolly." (Aside to the spotter: "Let's turn that damned thermostat up a little, son!")

   "Here, darlin', take Cousin Leslie's coat. If all these people weren't in here, the two of us would do some snuggling. I'd get you warm!" He cackled charmingly and gallantly draped his blue blazer around Dolly's bare shoulders. He sent his son into the bar for a cup of hot coffee laced with a shot of brandy.

   It was now 25 long minutes away from the appearance of Hip Number 101, for Leslie the focal point of the evening...the year! Could Dolly last? It was going to be close.
   At 9:05 p.m. Dolly rose to her feet. "Leslie, I simply must leave. I am most uncomfortable!"

   Leslie, on his feet now, screaming at Ryan and putting on a show for Dolly: "Goddamn it, boy, get Bill Greely (Keeneland general manager). I want this temperature fixed. This lady is cold! And my 'Pretty Boy' is fixin' to come in here, and we want to see him."

   Ryan nodded worriedly, and before another horse came into the ring, he hightailed over to the thermostat and pretended to fiddle with it. He then gave the high sign to Combs that everything was corrected. Trying to help, Ryan leaned in to Dolly Green and assured her, "Ma'am, we've warmed it up. You'll be comfortable now!"

   This ploy was good for 10 minutes. Now the colt was in the ring.

   Combs had his coat on Dolly, his arm draped around her, and was practically sitting in her lap. She was drinking her hot coffee, and at last she seemed somewhat interested in the proceedings.
   Hip Number 101 opened at $300,000 then jumped to $400,000. The reserve had been reached, and now any bids would be live ones.

   Leslie turned and smiled expectantly at Dolly. She nodded vaguely, and Ryan bellowed, "Yep!!!" The colt went to $500,000.

   Combs might have signaled to someone in the pavilion. The bid jumped to $600,000.

   At that point the great showman leaned forward in his seat, waved idiotically at the colt in the ring and sang out, "Hello there, 'Pretty Boy.' You gonna win that Derby for Leslie and Dolly aren't you, 'Pretty Boy'?"

   Dolly whispered impatiently to Leslie that she wanted to bid again. Leslie's hand on her shoulder fluttered for $700.000.

   Mysteriously, the bid kept jumping on past a million, until Dolly bid a cool million two hundred.

   At that point Dolly stood up and said, "Oh, Leslie, I just can't bid anymore." It was her bid. She didn't have to.

   With his arm around her, they were starting up the aisle. Surprisingly, they heard "One million, three hundred thousand." Leslie couldn't believe it. But with the guts of a bandit, he whispered, "You might just want to try one more bid, darlin'. Shall we do just one more on our 'Pretty Boy'?"

   In exasperation she said, "Oh, I suppose so, but then do let's go."

   Leslie Combs, looking back over his shoulder and never breaking stride, unabashedly but emphatically waved in another bidfor $1,400,000. Sold!

   The twosome disappeared out the door, and Leslie Combs deposited her into the warmth of the waiting limousine.

   Dolly had some nice horses through the years, but this one was certainly not a standout. His name was Yukon. He never won. He never even raced. With that pedigree, he did go to stud but did not emulate either his daddy or his half brother.

[Historical note: Dolly Green bought a total of four horses for $2.2 million that July night in 1980.]


Leave a Comment:

Bret Stossel

Oh well, as long as everyone left happy...

14 Mar 2013 10:06 PM
Bret Stossel

Oh well, long as everyone left happy...

14 Mar 2013 10:10 PM
The Deacon

Such is horse racing, even when you think you win you usually lose.

15 Mar 2013 3:49 AM
Mary Zinke

Another enjoyable story, and I love the way they are told. Still waiting for that special one about Dominion's groom.

15 Mar 2013 4:32 AM
Tory Chapman

Do a story on Mr. Walter Kelly please.

15 Mar 2013 10:46 AM
Dan McGough

Funny story if you are not Dolly Green. I doubt the party who bought the colt would like being the butt of the joke/story. Another example of, if you can't cheat your own clients and friends then who can. Anyone doubt the reason for dual agency being unethical.

Additionally, I'm sure the reason Cot Campbell wasn't one of Mr. Combs "marks" is he knew when he was being rolled and no bid from a 1.4 million purchase.

15 Mar 2013 11:34 AM
Michael J Arndt

Dolly Green was the daughter of the largest home developer of Beverly Hills, California. Trust me, Dan, she never missed that million four.

15 Mar 2013 7:11 PM

Thanx for the memories Cot! You gotta love a man that grins while he fights!

15 Mar 2013 7:18 PM
Dan McGough

I'm sure Ms. Green didn't miss the 1.4 million. Integrity is the point. I forgot its the "horse business".

16 Mar 2013 10:54 AM
Love 'em all

Speaking of 'characters', Ms Green was certainly one ... and had fun dabbling in Thoroughbreds in spite of her "trepidations".  

>"Oh, it was the most exciting thing," the irrepressible Miss Green later said of the auction. "I couldn't believe, after all these years, I was actually bidding on a horse. . . . Then to bid that kind of money for a horse. My, I did have some trepidations."

Conceding that her only involvement with horse racing before that auction was attending races, Miss Green was initially considered a "mystery woman" in horse-racing circles.<


Glad Ms Green had so much fun ... and was very generous in her lifetime.  

I'm enjoying your book, Mr. Campbell.  

16 Mar 2013 2:26 PM
syl kiger

Wonderful memory.  I was there and insured the colt for Dolly.

Regards, Syl

16 Mar 2013 4:09 PM
Love 'em all

Mr. Combs' obituary is quite interesting ...


He and Ms Green died the same year ... 5 months apart.

16 Mar 2013 5:44 PM
Bad Agent

Dan I must respond to your comments, as they infer some sort of nefarious behavior by Leslie Combs. What, pray tell, do you think a colt was worth who was by Northern Dancer and a half to Mr. Prospector? The fact that he was a bit crooked is irrelevant, especially since that was not unusual in that family. (Mr. P was awful!)

It's easy to sit back and question someone's integrity, but Combs didn't act alone: Ms. Green was there as a willing and involved participant. She obviously knew she was taking advice from the consignor of the colt, so give her some credit. In addition, the fact that somebody else bid $1.3 million as they were walking out the door confirms that someone else held the yearling in such high regard, so the price was a fair market price. What more do you want?

I get so tired of people like you - who likely have little or no actual investment in the game - pointing out from the sidelines supposed fraudulant activity in this business. Nobody can tell the future, and if that colt had won a stakes race and gone on to stud he would have been a financial home run. Your comment is one of ignorance and shows how lacking you are in the practical realities of buying young, unproven horses. It's all speculation.

Ms. Green didn't need you or anybody else protecting her investments or dictating to her what might or might not have been fair. She obviously made that decision for herself. And you certainly are not in a position to comment on whether or not the purchase lacked integrity. So, please, save your sanctimonious editorializing for another time and let us enjoy this interesting story for the characters contained therein.  

17 Mar 2013 1:20 AM
Fortune Pending

Whomever named the horse Yukon (You-Con), how appropriate!

17 Mar 2013 1:56 PM
Dan McGough

Bad Agent you are correct and I stand corrected.

17 Mar 2013 7:40 PM
Mary Zinke

My goodness if that scolding didn't sound like it came from that cutie Tom.

17 Mar 2013 11:08 PM

Dan McGough:

Why are you apologizing (to Bad Agent)? It is Bad Agent,rather than you, that is sactimoniously editorializing. It's obvious that D.G. was a relative neophyte and trusted L.C. L.C. was aware of this, and took unfair advantage of that trust. What does that say about his integrity? And, Keeneland had less than clean hands. No question that their behaviors were less than "ethical", and very likely illegal as well.    

18 Mar 2013 12:35 PM
Bad Agent

Sceptre: I'd be interested in hearing how exactly you feel LC took advantage of Ms. Green's trust. The subject horse was no doubt one of the best-bred colts in the sale, and she made exactly one more bid than the next highest bidder. Therefore, the market dictated the price, not LC.

It's easy to say in hindsight the sale was a bust, given the colt never ran up to his breeding, but that happens all the time. You can't hold that against LC because he couldn't know one way or another if the horse could run.

Bottom line: his client paid a fair price for a regally-bred individual. In this business that's as good as it gets.

19 Mar 2013 12:27 PM

Bad Agent:

You scold Dan McGough for being naive/unsophisticated re- the game, that he should remain silent, yet your last comments reveal that your scoldings should rather apply to you. For openers, even back then there were countless highly bred colts who failed to sell well, or were rna'd. Without a DG, Combs was obviously astute enough to realize that (the future) Yukon could well be another poor seller. Perhaps you should re-read the details in Mr. Campbell's post. Also, to allude that Yukon and Mr. P. were similar physically is ludicrous. Had you ever seen them? I had, and aside from Mr. P's fore toe-out, I found him to be a rather splendid and extremely athletic specimen. I realize that "folklore" on him now may be otherwise, but it is spoken and penned by know nothings like yourself. Lastly, while we can't know for sure, it could well be that DG was the only "live" bidder on Yukon. You don't know if that one other "phantom" bid was indeed live, or just another of Combs'. And if it was indeed live, so what? Not every bidder is a genius, but consignor's tend not to count on fools (recall that Keeneland had to be persuaded to accept him-his pedigree notwithstanding). As to you; you know what's said about people who live in glass houses...  

19 Mar 2013 1:23 PM

This story reminds me so much of how horse people were when I was young. I loved going to horse shows and watching the action on the sidelines along with the horses in the ring.

The old stories are great. It was a different time and I miss it.

I do not know what it is like now since I have grown but the horse shows are not the same anymore....

20 Mar 2013 12:48 PM
Bad Agent

sceptre: I'm not interested in getting into a pissing match with you about this, but you are way off base here.

First and foremost, we bred to Mr. P three of his last four seasons at stud. (His conformation is generally regarded as the primary reason he began his stud career in Florida.) He didn't just toe out: he had very rough, offset knees that he often passed on to his babies. Additionally, I worked for a long time with one farm that stood Yukon for many years, and I'm quite familiar with his physique and conformation. So, please, don't make assumptions about things you don't know anything about. That is what I was taking Dan to task for. Nothing more.

For the record I didn't 'compare' Mr. P to Yukon, I said that crookedness was a family trait, and that in and of itself didn't make Yukon a throwaway.

And I couldn't disagree more with your statement 'so what' regarding the 'phantom bid'. That is the point. Based on Cot's story it would seem the bid caught Combs by surprise, so it's fair to assume it was a legitimate bid. That set the true market price for the colt. Since none of us know otherwise it's fair to maintain that the $1.4 bid was an honest price.  

Did Combs put on a show to keep his client entertained and enthused? Of course. But that bit of good business does not make him a crook: it makes him a good salesman.

To reiterate - you, Dan and everybody else is free to express whatever opinion you'd like on these blogs. I simply stated that it gets tiresome of uninformed people automatically assuming that something sinister is at work when a horse didn't work out. Based on Ms. Green's post-sale comments she was quite pleased with herself, which is the only thing that matters.

21 Mar 2013 8:33 AM

Bad Agent:

Let's try to set the record straight. Re-crookedness; you stated that "Mr. P. was awful". Really, Bad Agent? I think you're forgetting that Mr. P. was the Kenneland July sale topper. And, back in 1971, Mr. P.'s pedigree (when he was a yearling) wasn't of standout variety. His dam was a mere 100k + earner, and non-graded-type SW, with yet no produce record. So, unless Mr. Combs then pulled another "fast one", Mr. P's sales topping price was largely due to his overall splendid appearance. This was certainly not the case with Yukon. You claim to have seen Yukon. Well, I had as well, and he had none of the physical quality attributes of a Mr. P. Mr.Combs knew how to look at a horse. Keeneland's inspectors knew how to look at a horse. Mr. Combs had every reason to believe that he'd be hard pressed to get a good price on Yukon. This prompted his

less than ethical behavior re-the sale. The fact that one bidder may, or may not have, bid 1.3M is irrelevant, since it's pretty obvious (in view of the facts) what was the mindset of Combs...Also, Mr. P. initially stood in Florida because his owner had a farm in Florida. His fore toe-out (or whatever else you mistakenly imagine) wasn't the reason. He was also a speed-type that then fit well with the FL industry. Back then, FL, rather than KY, tended to go for those types. I know, easy to say now, but back then I, and several others, viewed Mr. P. as a freakish racing talent. His later career racing stats waned somewhat due to acquired respiratory issues. His was always the real deal, whereas Yukon was a dud from the start. So, for one, I'm not making assumptions about something I don't know about. (perhaps, you don't have the best eye). And, two, Mrs. Green's post-sale demeanor is also irrelevant.    

21 Mar 2013 4:09 PM

Re the sales, my pals and I at age 10 went to the sale after school as there was free soda pop there. Someone gave us some pop to take out to a truck for the driver. We were told the driver might be asleep.

I climbed up on the running board, and the driver was there, asleep or so I thought.

I opened the truck door (driver side), and the body (dead weight) fell right off the seat and into my arms and chest, knocking me to the ground.What to do?

Three of us pushed and pulled him back in behind the wheel, and took off like ORB did in the 2013 Derby.

He was dead, alright, but we never found out if it was natural causes or planned.

So, if anyone ever asks you to take out some Orange Crush to the parking lot, you'll know what to say.

07 May 2013 12:34 AM

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