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Quiet anniversary for Derby winner Combs
By Marty McGee
LEXINGTON, Ky. - In a nondescript corner office of Barn 30 at the Thoroughbred Training Center, there isn't a single clue that its occupant trained the Kentucky Derby winner 40 years ago this May.
"I've only been in this barn a year or so," said Don Combs. "Maybe one day I'll hang up a picture or two."
When he was just 31, Combs won the 1970 Derby with Dust Commander, who has gone down in history as one of the least accomplished Derby winners. In similar fashion, Combs has marched through a training career remarkably void of notable feats, especially in the last 30 years or so. Despite being a full-time trainer all those years, Combs owns just 408 career wins. Since 1976, Combs sent out two or fewer winners in nine different years, and since January 2006, his stable has won just three races.
"I know the numbers are terrible," said Combs. "It's because I haven't had any good horses. Good horses make good trainers."
For a sport that tends to transform Derby-winning trainers such as Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, and Nick Zito into veritable rock stars, there also are the trainers who have enjoyed their proverbial 15 minutes of Derby fame, then disappeared nearly as quickly. Since Combs, other Derby-winning trainers who have made similar hit-and-runs include David Cross, Cam Gambolati, Lynn Whiting, and John Servis, but none has seemed as particularly forgettable as Combs.
When Churchill Downs hosted its Derby alumni ceremonies in the late 1990s, inviting the surviving owners, trainers, and jockeys of Derby winners to appear at various honorary functions, Combs was among them - but hardly in demand for autographs and photo ops in the manner of a Lukas or Zito or jockeys Ron Turcotte and Steve Cauthen.
"Once in a while I'll meet somebody who knows that I won the Derby," said Combs. "But not that often. In the mid-90s I had been dating a woman for more than a year before I told her about it."
Dust Commander, an Illinois-bred owned by Robert Lehmann, had upset the Blue Grass Stakes at 35-1 just nine days beforehand and was regarded as an outsider in a wide-open 96th running of the Derby. My Dad George was the 5-2 choice over Personality, Silent Screen, and Terlago in a field of 17, with Dust Commander sent away at 15-1. With Mike Manganello aboard, Dust Commander rallied from ninth to post a stunning five-length triumph.
"One thing I remember was hardly anybody interviewed me afterward," said Combs. "Maybe a couple reporters back at the barn when the horse was cooling out."
Dust Commander ran ninth behind Personality in the Preakness, then didn't go in the Belmont Stakes. Combs said he resigned shortly after the Preakness, with Ike Mourar assuming the training of Dust Commander, who won just 8 of 42 career starts. Combs then enjoyed a decent run of about 12 years while moving from one major circuit to another, including New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Southern California before eventually returning to Kentucky, where he was born and raised.
"Don put me on my first stakes winner in California," said Chris McCarron, the retired Hall of Fame jockey who currently operates his North American Racing Academy out of the same barn as Combs at the training center. "April Axe in the 1978 Will Rogers at Hollywood Park. He was a good horseman then, and he still is. He's an excellent caretaker. I don't understand why he doesn't have more horses."
Combs seems blithely resigned to his bit role in Derby lore and to the low profile he has maintained in the 40 years that have passed since that glorious afternoon of May 2, 1970. An affable, talkative, sturdy man who was described in a post-Derby article in Sports Illustrated as a "sideburned, handsome trainer," Combs at 71 still has a full, thick head of hair, albeit gray. Once married and divorced, without kids, he seems relatively happy and healthy as he and his career remain well below the Derby radar.
"I've been an animal lover all my life, and this is what I love to do, just be with my horses," he said. "I'm really proud of winning the Derby. It's very important to me. But I went a lot of years without it ever being mentioned at all, and I've always been fine with that."
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