Brownell Combs, who saw the best of times and worst of times in the horse business, is dead at the age of 80. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that he died Sunday in Lexington, Ky.
Born Leslie Brownell Combs II, he was the son of the legendary horseman Leslie Combs, who in 1937 founded Spendthrift Farm (named after his great-grandfather's Belmont Stakes winner Spendthrift) and turned it into a breeding and sales juggernaut. The farm reached its zenith in the 1970s, around the time the elder Combs – dubbed Cousin Leslie by all who knew him – turned over the reins to his only son in 1974. Leslie Combs was famous not just for his Thoroughbred breeding acumen, but for his bloodstock wheeling and dealing, his parties, and for bringing glamour and excitement into the world of Thoroughbred breeding and racing in the Bluegrass State and beyond.
Brownell Combs, physically a giant of a man who lived for many years in his father's shadow, promptly syndicated two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978), standing both at the sprawling farm on Iron Works Pike near Lexington, Ky. Leslie Combs was a pioneer in the syndication of stallions, having made the first big deal with his sealed-bid purchase and syndication of Horse of the Year Nashua for a world record price of $1,251,200 in 1955.
“No one has ever syndicated two Triple Crown winners, which Brownell Combs did,” Preston Madden, the master of Hamburg Place and a lifelong friend of Mr. Combs, told the Herald-Leader. “That's an accomplishment that no one else has, and I don't think anyone else is going to have anytime soon.”
This was an era of dizzying bloodstock prices that carried over into the 1980s. Mr. Combs, with his father's encouragement, folded a significant portion of Spendthrift into a private stock offering in 1983 – something that had never been done before – just as the market was nearing its peak. The move, however, was a financial disaster, as bloodstock values soon plummeted, leaving investors angry and broke. Some of them sued over the appraised value of Spendthrift's assets, and the resulting carnage (despite the ultimate failure of the lawsuits) saw the collapse of the equine empire that Leslie Combs built over nearly half a century.
Spendthrift sat empty for years, changing hands several times until being purchased and brought back to its former glory by current owner B. Wayne Hughes.
The financial failure of Spendthrift was, for all practical purposes, a swan song for the senior Combs, who died in 1990 and the age of 88. Brownell Combs maintained a lower profile in the industry, filling his role as a Founding Member of the Breeders' Cup and engaging in bloodstock on a limited scale.
“We were greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Brownell Combs, who served the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry with great distinction for many years,” said Breeders' Cup chairman Bill Farish. “As a Founding Member of the Breeders' Cup, and in his energetic service as a Director on our Board, Brownell and Spendthrift Farm played a pivotal role in the commitment and development of establishing our World Championship event, which seemed like an impossible dream at the time of its creation more than 30 years ago. We extend our deepest sympathies to the Combs family.”
“He had red corpuscles in his blood, and he made things happen,” Preston Madden told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Anything that required a little courage to do, I think he probably did. I was proud to have him as a friend.”
He is survived by two sons, Leslie Combs III and Brownell Combs, and two daughters, Dorothy Combs and Jennifer Combs Wick. A third son, Daniel Combs, died in 2004, according to a report in the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Milward Funeral Home in Lexington is handling funeral arrangements for Mr. Combs, including a graveside service on 11:30 a.m. Monday at Lexington Cemetery.
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