This feature originally appeared in the May 28, 2016 issue of Blood-Horse.
The establishment of the Breeders’ Sales Company to conduct auctions at Keeneland in the middle 1940s quickly led to one of the most colorful and significant institutions on the Turf. The summer yearling sale became the bellwether of the organization created of and for Kentucky breeders, and major consignments over the next few decades included those of Hal Price Headley, Warner Jones Jr.’s Hermitage Farm, and the Nuckols family’s Hurstland. A.B. Hancock Sr.’s Claiborne Farm had been a mainstay in the auction sales, but when A.B. “Bull” Hancock Jr. took over the farm, he preferred private sales and/or racing.
The way was clear for one Leslie Combs II to rise to such stardom that his Spendthrift Farm, to a large extent, became the face of the Keeneland sales. Combs was a garrulous individual with a salesman’s smile and style. He exuded what many took for true Southern charm, liked to refer to himself as “Cuzin’ Leslie,” and was a masterful architect of “the deal.”
Quickly, Combs also proved his merit as a horseman, helping cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden Graham select yearling purchases with such astuteness that she campaigned the champion 2-year-old male and filly of 1945 (Star Pilot and Beaugay) and won the 1947 Kentucky Derby with Jet Pilot.
Combs’ Spendthrift Farm first led the consignors list by average price in the 1946 summer yearling sale, and in 1949 launched a 16-year run atop those standings. Combs was among the consignors who hosted lavish parties in the days and evenings leading to the auction, where Combs’ old Centre College roommate George Swinebroad held forth from the announcer’s stand with his own brand of country boy slyness and bravado. Combs opened his farm to visitors, knowing that most were chaff, but once in a while one would prove to be a kernel, i.e., a business mogul who could be lured into buying yearlings.
The Keeneland summer sale was glamour epitomized, and Spendthrift was at the center. This status was enhanced further in 1955 when Combs put together a syndicate to buy Nashua. The star of racing that year, at least in the East, Nashua came onto the market because of the tragic death of owner William Woodward Jr., who was killed by gunshot when his wife mistook him for a burglar. The estate offered Woodward’s great Belair Stud and Stable bloodstock in several venues, and in the case of the Horse of the Year invited sealed bids. Combs’ syndicate offered the top price of $1,251,250. One of those businessmen he had courted, Christopher J. Devine, was a major supplier of the money it took to seal the deal. Devine was described as the country’s largest dealer in government bonds.
Nashua’s status as the most expensive horse in history added more luster and introduced the names of Leslie Combs and Spendthrift to the public at large. In a New York Times piece years later, Combs recalled that Nashua “put Spendthrift on the map...nearly 20,000 people a year used to come to see the farm and see Nashua and talk with his groom, Clem Brooks.”
However, it was not Nashua, but his racing rival Swaps, who enabled Combs to break into the six-figure era of the yearling sales. In 1961 Combs’ consignment included a classy chestnut by Swaps—Obedient, by Mahmoud, and one of the Spendthrift marks of the time, business giant John M. Olin, was induced to bid $130,000 through an agent. No yearling in America had ever sold for as much as $100,000, and the record broken by Swapson had stood at $87,000 for a Hyperion colt at Saratoga since 1956.
Breeders’ Sales Company was merged into Keeneland Association in 1962, the year Keeneland founding father Hal Price Headley passed away. Thus, the boutique racetrack’s racing program would be buttressed over the years by a giant auction company.
The summer sales continued through 2002 and remained the signature sale until then, but the November and January bloodstock sales and the rapidly expanded September yearling sale achieved massive escalations of their own. A new sales pavilion was completed in 1969 at a cost of $700,000.
Over the years some of Combs’ more spectacular moments in the sale ring turned out to be orchestrated. For example, the “buyer” might already have been co-breeder and co-owner of the yearling. This was the case of Majestic Prince (Raise a Native—Gay Hostess, by Royal Charger; bred solely by Combs), which Combs and Canadian industrialist Frank McMahon conspired to make the first quarter-million-dollar yearling in 1967. As a racehorse, however, Majestic Prince was genuine, and he did much to reverse the image of high-priced yearlings as busts when he raced unbeaten through the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. (Years later a $4-million Keeneland yearling carried the name Fusaichi Pegasus to victory in the 2000 Kentucky Derby.)
Combs had been syndicating horses since the 1940s, imitating a format worked out in the 1920s for the English St. Leger winner Tracery. He was not one to quibble, however, in the face of frequent assumptions that he had personally invented the system of syndicating a stallion into 32 or so shares.
After Nashua, the practice proliferated, at Spendthrift and other farms, and as stallion prices rose so did yearling prices. Although Olin was the first to bid in six figures, it was Charles W. Engelhard Jr., who soon made that figure, if not routine, at least easily anticipated for Keeneland’s July sale.
Escalation led to the first million-dollar yearling, a Secretariat colt that brought $1.5 million in 1976. The first $10-million yearling followed in less than a decade.
Several factors brought the top Europeans to buy at Keeneland in July and later in September. They included the 1968 Epsom Derby victory by Keeneland graduate Sir Ivor; the exportation of Canadian-bred Nijinsky II whose English Triple Crown introduced to Europe the prominence of his sire Northern Dancer; and the collection by John Gaines at Kentucky’s Gainesway Farm of such Euro-centric stallions as Vaguely Noble, Blushing Groom, Lyphard, and Riverman. Keeneland was a key place to buy, wherever one planned to race, and commercial breeders embraced this opportunity with ardor. Meanwhile, Paul Mellon, John Galbreath, and Nelson Bunker Hunt were winning additional Epsom Derbys with American homebreds Mill Reef, Roberto, and Empery, respectively.
Individual consigners who plied these deep waters in addition to Spendthrift included the Windfields Farm of Northern Dancer’s breeder and owner, E.P. Taylor; Claiborne Farm, which returned to the market after the 1972 death of Bull Hancock; William S. Farish’s expansive Lane’s End Farm; Nelson Bunker Hunt’s Bluegrass Farm; as well as the long established Hermitage.
Meanwhile, buyers’ power was swelled by Robert Sangster’s team that morphed into today’s Coolmore juggernaut, Stavros Niarchos, Prince Khalid Abdullah, and the numbing purchasing prowess of the Maktoums, the ruling family of Dubai.
The march in price hit what might be regarded as a premature peak as long ago as 1985. In terms of the overall Keeneland sales, it is an anomaly that any record has stood for three decades, but when the Nijinsky II colt from Seattle Slew’s dam, My Charmer, entered the ring consigned by Warner Jones’ Hermitage and bred by Farish, Jones and W.S. Kilroy, the Sangster team emerged the winner only after a scrum requiring a closing bid of $13.1 million, still the yearling record.
While that record has not fallen, in the intervening years, escalation has continued in the broodmare and weanling markets, nudged on by spectacular dispersals such as those of Hermitage Farm, Bunker Hunt, Edward P. Evans, the Thoroughbred Corp. and W.T. Young’s Overbrook Farm.