'MIKE AND THIS HORSE NEEDED EACH OTHER'
Robert E. Lehmann, born 49 years ago in Fremont, Ohio, is a slightly built, unassuming man who believes in good-luck charms and superstitions and is so delightfully frank that he says defiantly, "It would mean twice as much to me to shoot a record tiger as to win the Kentucky Derby." Within nine days during the last fortnight, Lehmann, a retired construction company executive with comparatively new thoroughbred holdings in Florida and Kentucky, managed to achieve this wildly improbable tiger-Derby double.
Although seeming hot, bothered and bewildered as the champagne flowed in his direction at Churchill Downs last Saturday evening, Lehmann unabashedly set the record even straighter. "Of all the 100,000 people here today, I'm the most surprised," he said.
Maybe not, because there were a lot of surprised—and mortified—faces around the old track after the Derby, but surprised he was certainly entitled to be. His $6,500 purchase, Dust Commander, trained by a virtual rookie in big-time racing, Don Combs, and ridden by Jockey Mike Manganello, had just won the 96th Kentucky Derby by five convincing lengths in one of the major upsets of the last two decades. The elaborate Churchill Downs press brochure, which gave detailed histories on 18 possible Derby runners and 22 jockeys, failed to include a single word about any member of the victorious combination. Yet the week before the Derby Dust Commander had won the mile-and-an-eighth Blue Grass Stakes, becoming the seventh horse in the last 12 years to use the Blue Grass as a steppingstone to victory at Churchill Downs.
On Blue Grass Day, April 23—which also happened to be his 49th birthday—Lehmann was 8,000 miles away from storm-ridden Keeneland on one of his twice-a-year hunting expeditions. "I think I have one of the largest private collections of big-game trophies in the world," he muses, "and I wouldn't give up one of my trips even if my wife was having a baby." The Blue Grass ranked well below a baby to Lehmann, but it was a little bundle on the way to a bigger bundle. "I told Don Combs and my wife," he recalled, "that if we ran one, two or three in the Blue Grass, let's run back in the Derby. If we didn't, let's forget it. I expected them to send me a telegram, and then I went off and forgot about it."
At Blue Grass post time, give or take a few time zones, Lehmann was winding up an 11-day stint in a treetop shooting stand waiting for a tiger on the India-Nepal border, some 140 miles from Lucknow. "A year ago," he said, "I went out there and sat for 21 days, 14 hours a day, waiting to shoot a tiger that had killed 117 villagers in the surrounding countryside. I got him on the 21st day. This time I had already killed one leopard and a tiger, but I was after a record. I decided to stick it out, even if it meant not getting back for the Derby—no matter what Dust Commander did in the Blue Grass." On the 11th day of his watch Lehmann sat motionless in his stand. "You don't dare cough or even swat at a mosquito," he said. "You just sit and wait. We had a young buffalo staked out as bait nearby in this wild region of the Himalayan foothills. Suddenly I saw the tall grass moving. It was a tiger approaching. I let him get to within 75 feet of me before I killed him with a .300 Weatherby Magnum."
At Keeneland, Dust Commander was eliminating Corn Off The Cob, Naskra and Protanto in the Blue Grass. Most observers felt the colt won only because of the sloppy going, but Mrs. Lehmann and Trainer Combs dutifully dispatched a cable to the Indian wilds with the glad tidings, and awaited confirmation to march on Louisville. But the cable had never arrived. Two days later, happily, Lehmann telephoned his wife from Calcutta, heard the good news and made plans to return to Kentucky—mostly, he admits, because he had attained his hunting goal and not because of any frenzied desire to run in the Derby or even to see it. "How can you compare the excitement of the two sports?" the heretic asks. "In one you sit patiently for days and days waiting for the right moment, and what a satisfaction when it comes! In the other you spend two minutes watching a horse race, and then it's all over. I must say I prefer the former."
The owner of some 30 broodmares and about two dozen horses in training, Lehmann joined a motley gathering of Derby figures in Louisville last week. Arriving less than 24 hours before post time, he found a cast that included few of the renowned names of past Derbies other than Jockeys Bill Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Braulio Baeza and Milo Valenzuela.
Some owners and trainers had never seen a Derby before, much less started in one. Before it was over, many must have wished they had never dragged their horses to the Downs. No fewer than 18 passed the entry box Thursday morning, when it seemed that more colts had a chance to win this year than had started a year ago. And speculation was rampant as to which ones appeared to be legitimate starters and which would do what over what kind of a running surface.
Louisville whiskey magnate W.L. Lyons Brown wanted his turquoise-and-white silks on display in the old home town and thus gave Diane Crump the opportunity to become the first girl jockey ever to ride in the Derby. She and her colt, Fathom, beat one horse, the pacesetting Rancho Lejos, who slowed to a tired crawl after less than a mile.