Leslie Brownell Combs II, former president of Spendthrift Farm, dies at 80

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 31, 2013 

Leslie Brownell Combs II, former president of Spendthrift Farm, once a leading Thoroughbred breeding operation, died Sunday in Lexington. He was 80.

Mr. Combs also was a former director and vice president of the Breeders' Cup and a former chairman of the Kentucky State Racing Commission.

"To me, dad was always a larger-than-life figure," said Brownell Combs of Fairfax, Va., the youngest son of Mr. Combs. "He was always a real generous man, somebody his friends could always count on."

Mr. Combs was the only son of Leslie Combs II, who founded Spendthrift in 1937 and expanded it from 126 acres to more than 6,000.

The farm was named for a famous racehorse owned by the great-great-grandfather of Leslie Brownell Combs II.

Spendthrift was once the home of Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the Triple Crown winners of 1977 and 1978. The farm reached its peak in stallion syndication in 1978, when those two champions were syndicated for $12 million and $16 million, respectively.

That in itself was an unsurpassed accomplishment, Lexington horseman Preston Madden of Hamburg Place said Tuesday.

"No one has ever syndicated two Triple Crown winners, which Brownell Combs did," Madden said Tuesday. "That's an accomplishment that no one else has, and I don't think anyone else is going to have anytime soon."

In 1974, Leslie Combs turned over the day-to-day operation of Spendthrift to Leslie Brownell Combs II.

Almost a decade later, at the peak of the Thoroughbred market, the Combses sold a 32 percent interest in Spendthrift to a group of wealthy investors for $31.7 million. One reason for the sale was concern about inheritance taxes; another was to make money.

The private stock offering was soon followed in November 1983 by the sale of stock to the public — a first for any Thoroughbred farm.

The move proved a disaster, and Leslie Combs saw his life's work almost destroyed. Leslie Combs II died in 1990 at age 88.

Spendthrift tried to expand just as the soaring Thoroughbred market began to collapse. Caught in the squeeze, Spendthrift had to sell land to pay debts. Many of its top stallions were moved to other farms. Several millionaire investors sued the Combses and others, charging that the 1983 private offering had overstated Spendthrift's assets. Leslie Brownell Combs II sold his stock in the farm in 1987.

The investors lost their case in federal court in May 1989.

Spendthrift endured a series of management changes and was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the time a new group of investors bought it in July 1989 and began to rebuild.

Preston Madden said he and Leslie Brownell Combs II knew each other most of their lives.

"We knew each other when we were kids," Madden said. "He introduced me to my wife, Anita. There were no dull moments when Brownell was around."

The two men got their pilot's licenses about the same time. "And I was thinking the other day that we used to fly planes side by side, he in one plane and me in the other," Madden said.

"He had red corpuscles in his blood, and he made things happen. Anything that required a little courage to do, I think he probably did. I was proud to have him as a friend."

Survivors include two sons, Leslie Combs III and Brownell Combs, and two daughters, Dorothy Combs and Jennifer Combs Wick. Another son, Daniel Combs, died in 2004 at age 44.

A graveside service will be at 11:30 a.m. Monday at Lexington Cemetery. Milward Funeral Home on Broadway is in charge of arrangements.

Herald-Leader staff writer Jim Warren contributed to this story. Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service