Louisville Magazine

APR 2019

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 4.19 57 The Prince of Spendthrift Farm In the year of Woodstock and the first man on the moon, Majestic Prince spun Bluegrass magic into Kentucky Derby gold. By Bill Doolittle Horse owner Frank McMahon leads Majestic Prince, with jockey Bill Hartack in the saddle, toward the Derby winner's circle. Photo courtesy of Keeneland Library Morgan Collection Fifty years ago, Majestic Prince came barreling down the Chur- chill Downs stretch to defeat Arts and Letters in a dramatic finish of the 1969 Kentucky Derby. e race, staged under brilliant blue skies before a record crowd of 106,333, was the first time Derby atten- dance topped 100,000. Majestic Prince's victory also marked a turning point in oroughbred racing, precisely because he was the horse that won that Derby. Until that time, most of the Ken- tucky Derbies had been dominated by blue-blooded horses produced on a handful of famous horse farms owned by the patriarchs of American racing. Names like Calumet, Greentree, Belair and King Ranch — those were the familiar grassy kingdoms in the 1930s and '40s that produced such stars as Gallant Fox, War Admiral and Cita- tion, Triple Crown winners bred and raced by their owners that then returned to their owners' farms to produce the next genera- tion of racing royalty. But there was another way, a modern way, in which commercial breeding farms produced young horses for sale at auction, where anyone who had the money could buy a horse that (theoretically, at least) might win the Kentucky Derby. Unlike the famous family farms, commercial horse farms were in the business of breeding to sell, consigning their best and brightest youngsters to "yearling" sales of one-year- old horses. Untrained prospects, with unknown futures. Still growing, with their racing careers to begin the next year at age two. At three, the cream of the crop could run in the Kentucky Derby. Which is exactly how Majestic Prince made his way to the 1969 Derby. An unde- feated star ready to run for the roses. Over the years, a handful of horses purchased at auction had won the Kentucky Derby. Hoop Jr. in 1945 and Dark Star in 1953 were notable names. But Majestic Prince was different. He came into the sales ring in 1967 as a one-year- old prospect known only as "Hip #126," a chestnut colt consigned to the Keeneland sales by the Spendthrift Farm of Leslie Combs II. Hip #126 referred to a paper tag stuck on each yearling's hip, denoting the horse by its catalog number in the sale. But with this one came a buzz. He was the talk of the sale, and it wasn't long after Hip #126 came into Lexington's Keeneland sales ring that auctioneer George Swinebroad banged his gavel down — "Sold!" — for $250,000, which was then a world record. (For com- parison, three horses went for more than $2 million at the Keeneland yearling sale last September. Since 1960, the most expensive horse sold at auction to go on to win the Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus at $4 million; the cheapest was 1971 winner Canonero II, who sold at auction for $1,200.) at made the handsome, one-year-old Hip #126 instantly famous. Soon to be named Majestic Prince, the colt went on to win the Kentucky Derby two seasons later — and prove irrevocably that commercially bred horses could be just as good as the "home- breds" of the landed gentry. Over the years the, tide has changed in the oroughbred business. Today, most of the winners of the Kentucky Derby, and a majority of the Eclipse Award-winning champions of the sport, are sold as yearlings at auction — including just this past year, when Justify took the roses and rolled on to a Triple Crown after being purchased at the 2016 Keeneland yearling auction for $500,000. e man who sold Justify, the head auctioneer at Keeneland today, is Ryan Mahan, and he loves rolling back his memories to Majestic Prince. "I was just a kid then, but, gosh, it was so interesting to me," Mahan says. "My dad was, and still is, a veterinarian. He did these surgeries that nobody ever did, so I was going to be a vet- erinarian. en I started going to the horse sales. It just intrigued the heck out of me — the theater of it, and the commerce of it." And leading the theatricality and commerce of the horse business was Leslie Combs II, one of those larger-than-life Ken- tucky Colonel characters of the Bluegrass horse-farm country. Combs believed in advertising, which wasn't a regular thing for horse breeders. He promoted his stallions, his yearlings and his Spendthrift Farm, a gorgeous spread on Iron Works Pike near Lexington. Combs would buy page after page of ads in the Blood-Horse and the oroughbred Record, and any other place he could think of. "No question, he was very sales-oriented, and very stallion-oriented," Mahan says. "In the old days, he had these mammoth parties. I mean, he had Bob Hope one year. He had Wayne Newton one year. Every year he had huge entertain- ment. ey had hot-air balloons. ey had elephant rides one time. Just huge parties. And everybody from all over the country would come." Combs, the master salesman, had special clients who believed in him and his horses. He advised MGM Studios' Louis B. Mayer, who was a pretty good promoter himself, in the movie business. Florence Nightingale Graham, who gave herself a new business name as founder of the cosmetics empire Elizabeth Arden, was a special Combs client. Graham was notorious for switching trainers at the drop of a hat. But she stuck with Combs. Actually, Combs was perfect for Graham, a horse owner who would ship Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream to her trainers to rub on the horses' legs (reportedly great on

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