The Ire of the Tiger at the Kentucky Derby

One never knows where a story idea will come from. This week it took a maiden victory by a 2-year-old filly at Saratoga and one particular name in her pedigree to unlock the story of one man and his impact on the sport, as unconventional as it was, and the powerful legacy he left in the form of one nondescript runt of a horse. ~ Steve Haskin

The Ire of the Tiger at the Kentucky Derby

By Steve Haskin

Owner Robert Lehmann, left, and Dust Commander in 1970 Kentucky Derby winner’s circle

Does the name Robert Lehmann ring a bell? How about Golden Chance Farm? I hadn’t given those names much thought until I saw a 2-year-old first-time starter named Emery romp in a maiden race at Saratoga the final week of the meet for owner Stonestreet Stables and trainer Brad Cox. Looking at Emery’s past performances I could not help but notice she was inbred to Naskra, a foal of 1967 whose name I had not seen in years. But I remember him well, especially his toughness as a racehorse and his success as a sire. To be inbred top and bottom to this hard-knocking stallion was indeed a shock.

Just seeing Naskra’s name made me think of his wild and wacky Kentucky Derby trail, in which he finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes and fourth in the Derby. But it was who won those two races that unlocked the memories that inspired this column; one that needs to be told. It is the story of Robert Lehmann and the bombshell he dropped on Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, as well as the legacy he left . It also shines the spotlight on his wife Verna, who celebrated her 98th birthday this past April.

So let’s go back to the 1970 Kentucky Derby trail and arguably the most auspicious, and definitely most controversial, debut by any owner and breeder, who would go on to own and breed a classic winner, own and breed several horses who became an integral part of racing’s Golden Era of the 1970’s, and breed one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time.

In 1968, Lehmann had just purchased Golden Chance Farm in Paris, Kentucky with his wife Verna and their five children. This was not exactly your typical Kentucky blueblood operation. After purchasing the farm, Lehmann went out and bought six yearlings to go with the six mares that had been part of the farm purchase. One of those yearlings was a son of Bold Commander, out of a mare who had been winless in 28 starts. Lehmann got the colt for the dirt cheap price of $6,500. And he performed like it, too, running for a $7,500 claiming tag.

That horse’s name was Dust Commander, who would win the Blue Grass Stakes in the slop at odds of 35-1 and then romp by five lengths in the Kentucky Derby at 15-1. You knew this was no ordinary racing operation when Lehmann did not attend the Blue Grass because he was in India hunting down and killing a man-eating tiger who had been terrorizing a small village, killing a number of people. He learned of the victory from Verna several days later and was as surprised as everyone, assuring her that the horse had little shot to win the Derby. With the Run for the Roses run only nine days after the Blue Grass, Lehmann barely made back in time for the race.

A millionaire by age 27, Lehmann’s passion in life was building and creating, and he once said, “If you can’t build you might as well die.” It was that philosophy that caused a collective gasp from racing fans, the media, and especially the Kentucky bluebloods following Dust Commander’s Derby victory. After accepting the trophy, the usual humble acceptance speech heard every year was replaced by Lehmann, feeling he hadn’t created anything and didn’t deserve to rejoice in the victory, saying on national TV that winning the Derby wasn’t as exciting as bagging a big-game animal. Rubbing salt in the proverbial wound, he added, “It means twice as much to me to shoot a record tiger than winning the Kentucky Derby.”

That set off a firestorm of criticism from the media and shockwaves throughout the racing world. Animal lovers everywhere were stunned to hear that a man who owned and bred Thoroughbreds actually got more enjoyment killing a tiger than winning the Kentucky Derby. It was nothing short of blasphemy.

In Lehmann’s mind, all he had done was pay $6,500 for an unproven Illinois-bred yearling and got lucky. He had created nothing, and unlike big-game hunting he was merely an observer with no contribution to the ultimate victory. It just wasn’t the same thrill.

No horse had ever gone into the Derby with more divine assistance than Dust Commander. He had been blessed by the Zambian Archbishop, whose education Robert Lehmann had funded years earlier. Jockey Mike Manganello wore a St. Christopher’s medal that had been blessed by the Pope. Verna Lehmann wore a pin that Robert had brought back from India that was said to be a lucky token. And Robert carried with him the neck bones of a tiger and a leopard he had shot that also meant good luck in India. He even carried a rosary his grandmother gave him when he was 7. That was some heavy ammunition for someone who wasn’t excited to win the Derby.

To add to the craziness of this Derby, about 20 minutes before post time a man landed in the infield in a red, white, and blue parachute and somehow managed to get lost in the crowd before security could get to him. Minutes before, another person parachuted down but overshot the track and landed somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood.

Dust Commander, who sustained a soft tissue injury in the Derby, would go on to finish ninth in the Preakness, apparently aggravating the injury. He eventually placed in several stakes, retiring with eight victories in 42 starts. After standing at Golden Chance Farm, he was sent to Japan due to lack of interest, but returned to the United States after five years to stand at Gainesway Farm and finally to Springland Farm in Kentucky. But no one knew what became of him after his death in 1991. After years of searching by the Lehmann family, his remains were discovered in 2013 in an unmarked grave at a small farm near Paris, Kentucky that had been sold and divided. They were sent to the Kentucky Derby Museum where they were reburied in the garden next to fellow Derby winners Broker’s Tip, Swaps, Carry Back, and Sunny’s Halo.

In the years following Dust Commander’s Derby victory, Golden Chance Farm became the owner and breeder of top-class stakes horses thanks to Dust Commander’s sons Master Derby and Run Dusty Run. Lehmann had finally created something of his own on the racetrack. But he never lived to see it.

All during the early ‘70s, Lehmann, despite knowing he was dying of leukemia, continued to build. He expanded Golden Chance Farm, while building a bank, office building, motel, and restaurant in Clearwater, Florida. In the front yard of his home at Golden Chance, he constructed a 150-foot tower made of concrete slabs and a mausoleum that included the entrance doors from the old Metropolitan Opera House, gold-veined marble from Mexico, and Balmoral Red granite crypt covers from the same quarry in Finland that provided the crypt cover for Napoleon’s tomb.

Lehmann died in 1974, the year before Master Derby won the Preakness Stakes at odds of 23-1, as well as the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. He really blossomed at 4, winning the New Orleans and Oaklawn Handicaps, but in his biggest moment in the Metropolitan Handicap he ran into Forego, who beat him by a head.

In 1977, Run Dusty Run made his mark on the Triple Crown, but had the misfortune of coming along the same year as Seattle Slew, finishing second to the Triple Crown winner in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont Stakes. A winner of six of his nine starts at 2, he couldn’t buy a victory at 3, also finishing second in the Louisiana Derby, American Derby, and Blue Grass. He finally had his shining moment scoring a gutsy nose victory in the Travers Stakes only to be disqualified and placed second.

Golden Chance also had a good horse named Lot o’ Gold, who raced under the name of the Lehmann’s son Fred and won the Spiral Stakes at Latonia. But once again it was the same old story, as Lot o’ Gold finished second four times in a five-race span to Spectacular Bid, in the Hutcheson, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass Stakes before finishing up the track in the Kentucky Derby.

Another Robert Lehmann family colt, Bob’s Dusty, won the Clark Handicap twice, the Fayette Handicap, Spiral Stakes, and William McKnight Handicap, but was best known as the horse Seattle Slew knocked out of his way to get the lead in the Kentucky Derby.

So Golden Chance-owned and/or bred horses, as talented as they were, kept running into the likes of Seattle Slew (four times),  Spectacular Bid (five times), and Forego.

No, the craziness isn’t over. In 1980, the Fred Lehmann-owned and bred Golden Derby, a son of Master Derby, won the Tremont Stakes in a stirring finish that is best remembered for the runner-up, Great Prospector, reaching over and savaging Golden Derby. The head-on shot of the incident won the Eclipse Award for best photo of the year. No one remembers that Golden Derby would go on to win five stakes in his career and place in six others.

As sad as it was that Lehmann never got to see these horses run, what was saddest of all was that he never knew that some three months after his death he would create arguably his greatest monument and work of art. But this work of art was constructed from the cheapest material available, and for several years it showed. If it were made of brick and mortar, Lehmann may very well have torn it down.

But it came in the form of a Thoroughbred foal, who was by a bottom-of-the-barrel sire considered nothing more than a clean-up stallion who stood for a meager $500 stud fee. With 60 mares on the farm and only one stallion and another on the way, the Lehmanns couldn’t afford to pay the stud fees required to breed to so many mares, so they went out and bought a cheap stallion named Ole Bob Bowers to breed to some of the leftovers.

But Ole Bob Bowers was so mean and difficult to handle, having attacked several people, the Lehmanns put him in the Keeneland November breeding stock sale where he was bought for $900 the year after his son and Robert Lehmann’s greatest creation was born. By then he was residing at his new home in Ossseo, Michigan.

His son hardly looked like a work of art. He not only had inherited his sire’s ornery disposition he was physically incorrect and looked pretty much like a runt. Bobby Paul, who was in charge of the foals and weanlings, called him a “mean, studdish little bugger.” Three veterinarians advised the Lehmanns to get rid of him, so they put him in the Keeneland January mixed sale for newly turned yearlings that was known as Kentucky’s “fire sale.”

In the pavilion was John Calloway, a small-time breeder and trainer who owned a horse farm with his wife Jean in a rural area of Pee Wee Valley, about 10 miles outside of Louisville. The Calloways had a nice horse who kept getting beat by this one horse who was out of a Double Jay mare. So when John saw this scrawny little yearling who was out of a Double Jay mare it caught his attention. When the colt stepped in the ring his head was bloody from hitting it on the screen of his stall. Calloway said “he looked like a drowned rat and was a real mess.” But he liked the pedigree, so when the auctioneer opened the bidding at $1,000, Calloway upped it to $1,100 and that was it. The colt was his. Of all the Golden Chance babies who sold at that sale he was the cheapest. Considering his pedigree, his disposition and what he looked like, Fred Lehmann said he felt that was a fair price.

When Calloway got the colt home, a veterinarian took one look at him and said, “Oh my gosh, you might as well get rid of that one. He’ll never make it.” When the Calloways witnessed the colt’s behavior, taking out his anger on his water buckets and feed tubs, ripping them off the wall and stomping on them, they realized, like the Lehmanns, it was time to send him packing again.

But they did notice one thing about the colt as they stood by the fence of the large paddock and watched him scamper about with the other yearlings. “You know, he runs different from the others,” John said. Although still novices in the game they felt he glided over the ground and had the most beautiful action. But they were not experienced enough to know how to interpret it. They heeded their vet’s advice and decided to sell the colt at the next January mixed sale. But first they needed to name him. John Calloway would often name their horses with the name John. Of the five names that were submitted the one that was chosen was John Henry from the song about a “steel-drivin’ man.”

When it was time to ship him to the sale, John Henry was brought into his stall to be groomed, which he hated. His temperament was much better when he was outside in his paddock. When Jean Calloway went in to feed him, John Henry reared up like “a wild horse.” She dropped the feed bucket and dashed out of the stall, never wanting to see him again. When her husband loaded him on the van and drove off, Jean had only one thought: “Good riddance.”

And so John Henry was off to begin one the most amazing life journeys ever by a Thoroughbred, ending in racing’s pantheon. Bought and sold many times and tossed away like yesterday’s trash, he turned a frivolous short story into an uplifting epic. His belligerent nature from the day he was born continued to fuel his fighting spirit on the racetrack, enabling him to have his greatest year at age 9 and kept him younger than his years until his death at age 32.

John Henry’s life was woven like some great tapestry, not only of the Turf, but of the stage, where one human drama after another was played out. To those who lived in the shadow of John’s past, there was only gratification knowing that for a brief moment in time true greatness passed through their hands and that perhaps they helped move it along toward its place in history.

But it was Robert Lehmann who was the architect of this unlikely masterpiece. And he did it during one of the briefest and oddest careers of any owner and breeder. The man, the big-game hunter, the horse breeder who lived to build and create had built a one-horse dynasty and created a legacy that will endure in the hearts of racing fans and horse lovers.

As the Charlie Sheen character Bud Fox did in the movie Wall Street, Lehmann, in his final act as a breeder, had “bagged the elephant.”

Photos courtesy of Churchill Downs, Blood-Horse Library, NYRA/Adam Coglianese

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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