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 they 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.
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 bid—for $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.]