Monday, May 19, 2008

Spendthrift Farms and Leslie Combs - A Book Review

Horsewoman and author Mary Marshall lends her talents to the "Great Breeders and Their Methods” series, published by the Russell Meerdink Company. She tackles legendary breeder Leslie Combs II and his Spendthrift Farm. If you are expecting an in-depth analysis of breeding strategies and theories employed by Combs, you are likely to be disappointed. However if you can put aside the “Methods” and focus on the “Great Breeders”, you’re in for a treat.

Looking back, Spendthrift’s accomplishments were extraordinary: six world record yearling prices; first commercial breeder to eclipse more than $1 million in a single sale; first market breeder to surpass $1 million in purses won. Though Spendthrift didn’t invent syndication, they certainly perfected it. Between Leslie and his son, Brownell, they created many $1 million stallion syndicates including then world record amounts for Triple Crown winners Affirmed and Seattle Slew. The client roll reads like a who’s who of 20th century socialites: Elizabeth Arden, Harry Guggenheim, Marshall Field, Norman Woolworth and Louis B. Meyer. Fred Astaire was a frequent visitor and Brownell Combs relates to Marshall a wonderful memory of Fred Astaire tap dancing down the stairs to dinner one evening. Spendthrift’s sire and yearling roll over the years is written on the walls of racing history: Gallant Man, Raise a Native, Majestic Prince, Nashua, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector and the list goes on and on.

Marshall’s strongest chapters are the chapters devoted to the racing and breeding careers of a single stallion or broodmare. Their greatest triumphs and bitterest disappointments are covered as well as their careers as stallions or broodmares, either for Spendthrift or others. The tragedy of Landaluce, the conformationally challenged Seattle Slew, breed changer Mr. Prospector – all their exploits are covered in these chapters and the names that are now standard parts of pedigree charts come alive as racehorses rather than just as sires and dams.

When Marshall does delve into Combs’ methods and philosophies, the result is an interesting mix of old school horsemanship and sophisticated marketing methods. Combs summed up his philosophy in one sentence: “You breed the best to the best”, but under the surface, Marshall discloses that it went deeper than that.

Combs operation bridged the “touch and feel” era and the dawning of the computer age. While Spendthrift was out in front in its marketing of horses and syndication, his view on computer databases was decidedly old school.

“Five of the most important things about a champion race horse you can’t feed into a computer. That’s class, intelligence, conformation, courage and soundness,” Combs said. “Conformation and soundness” he went on, “are evident to the eyes, but the other three factors are completely intangible.”

To Combs, even racing ability – at least the prediction of racing ability in a foal, was also an intangible. “Just because a horse isn’t a perfect physical specimen, doesn’t mean it can run," Combs would say. He always felt that as long as you had ability and the bloodlines the rest would follow. Marshall can make you feel that you’re sitting on the porch at Spendthrift sipping sweet tea with Leslie as he relates his anecdotes and wisdom.

Sadly, the final chapters are devoted to the brief resurgence and ultimate demise of Spendthrift through its attempts to go public and finally parceled out and sold away. A chapter on Leslie’s wife, Dorothy, while interesting in parts, tends to be a little repetitive and, to me, slows the flow of the book. An interesting figure in her own right, I think her story could have been told interwoven with Leslie’s – as much of it already is.

This is my third foray into the “Great Breeders” series and easily my favorite. Marshall has an engaging style and uses Leslie’s legendary personality to illustrate the magnetism of the man. You can tell why his son would say that when Leslie entertained guests they always left as horse owners. If you think breeding is boring, spend a couple of days with Marshall and Combs – you will enjoy yourself immensely.

For viewpoints on this book from other members of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance, check out Brooklyn Backstretch and Handride's reviews as well. While you're there, make sure you sift through their other posts - it'll be well worth your time.

Order the book online at When you order the book direct through the publisher, you get an autographed copy at no extra charge. Additionally, you get on the Russell Meerdink mailing list and you’ll receive their quarterly catalogue. The only problem then is trying to limit your next order!

1 comment:

Brooklyn Backstretch said...

I deliberately didn't read your review until I'd got mine written and posted this morning. I really enjoyed what you wrote and the excerpts you quoted. I hate to say it, but I found your writing and style much more engaging than Marshall's!