Having grown up in Saratoga, I see racing and history intertwined; my little town (OK, not so little anymore) takes great pride in its 1864 clubhouse, and its status as the oldest sporting venue in the country, home to the oldest sporting event, the Travers Stakes.
When my interest in racing was renewed in 2000, I sought and devoured books on racing history. And I found that while most of them contained a wealth of stories and facts and histories, most of them also focused more on the information than on the writing—their appeal was in their content, not in their style and readability.
Great Breeders and Their Methods: Leslie Combs II and Spendthrift Farm falls into this category. I loved reading about how Combs came to racing and breeding, and the chapters on Spendthrift mares and stallions both taught and reminded me about major figures in racing’s history, recapping historic races and matings. Interspersed with biographies of both humans and horses is the evolution of the stallion syndicate as developed by Combs, a history with relevance in the breeding-mad world of racing today.
Marshall seems to have been let down by her editor, though, as the book suffers from a lack of organization and careful reading. In chapter one, Marshall writes of the murder of Combs’s wife’s parents; a hundred and twenty pages later, she tells largely the same story, this time in a chapter devoted to Dorothy Enslow Combs. On page twenty, Marshall relates the story of Combs’s famous party bus; using virtually identical language, she tells the same story on page 143.
A similar lack of attention applies to the sentence level. On one page, the mare is La Dauphine, on the next Le Dauphine. One might call these petty mistakes, but taken on the whole, they undermine the quality of Marshall’s knowledge and stories. Within the book, she cites a number of articles in which Combs is quoted, from Sports Illustrated and the Daily Racing Form among others, but there’s no bibliography, so those of us interested in tracking down those stories have no trail of breadcrumbs to follow.
From a strictly historical standpoint, I enjoyed this book; I learned a lot about Combs and about Spendthrift, about how breeding came to be the prime power in Thoroughbred racing, and about the stellar racing careers of Spendthrift breeding stock. Landaluce and Mr. Prospector, Raise a Native, Alydar and Affirmed all appear in these pages, and we get to re-visit both their triumphs and their demises. There’s also a certain objectivity in the pages that appeals; though the book seems to begin as a paean to Combs and Spendthrift, towards the end Marshall turns a critical eye on the Spendthrift dynasty as it struggles to remain relevant in a changing racing and economic world.
Marshall is armed with copious stories and a love of the sport, two qualities that serve her book well. I wish that her editor had served her as well, as the literary elements of the book struggle to keep up with the historical ones. If you’re looking for a good read, this is not the book. If you’re looking for information on one of the most important influences in Thoroughbred breeding over the last century, pick it up.
For another perspective on the book, check out Ted Grevelis’s review over at Owning Racehorses.
Great Breeders and Their Methods: Leslie Combs II and Spendthrift Farm, by Mary Marshall. Published in 2008 by the Russell Meerdink Company, Neenah, Wisconsin. 177 pages.