Jimmy Combest was a Kentucky farm boy who grew up around horses, then raced on the country’s most celebrated thoroughbred tracks during a 30-year career as a jockey.
Combest, of Southwest Ranches, rode in six Kentucky Derbies and a Belmont Stakes. In 1962, aboard Roman Line, he raced the second fastest Derby ever, losing in the last seconds to Decidedly, who broke Whirlaway’s 21-year track record by a second.
Roman Line broke it by two-fifths of a second.
Combest finished third in the 1958 Derby, fourth in 1953 and 1968, and third in the 1953 Belmont. His career win-place-show record: 1,354, including the Louisiana Derby; 1,342; 1,332.
In all, he rode 12,770 horses, mostly at tracks in the Northeast, Florida, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Detroit, before retiring in the 1970s to become a trainer and farm manager.
Born June 24, 1926, in Louisville and raised in the south-central Kentucky town of Columbia, James Theodore Combest died Tuesday. He was 86.
Daughter Kimberly Ackler said he’d suffered a stroke several years ago and succumbed to congestive heart failure at Westside Regional Medical Center in Plantation.
The Combest name is well known in thoroughbred racing. Jimmy’s brother, Reed Combest, of Pembroke Pines, is a noted trainer. His son, Phil, also a trainer, heads the 5,500-member Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Jockey/trainer Nick Combest, Jimmy and Reed’s older brother, died in 1977.
Jimmy signed on as a “bug boy’’ — an apprentice — at age 16, with trainer Clyde Trout, Phil Combest said, then “hit his stride in the 1950s in New York.’’
He competed with, and sometimes defeated, Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Willie Shoemaker.
“He was mischievous his entire life,’’ his nephew said. “If there was a practical joke in the jock’s room, Jimmy was behind it. At Christmas dinner, even though he was weak, he was till doing one-liners.’’
And flipping the bird for a snapshot.
In a message to the family on Facebook, jockey Mickey Solomone wrote: “We met in the jock’s room at Aqueduct in 1959 and became fast friends. Jim showed me the ropes, from golf to night life, all the things you would need to be a good rider. LOL. When he retired from riding and became a trainer, we had good success together...He knew every move I would make on his horse as the race unfolded.’’
A wiry 5-foot-5, with a fondness for filet mignon and lobster tails, black coffee and Cutty Sark, Combest raced at about 110 pounds, said his wife of 38 years, Dottie Piccolo Combest.
When he no longer had to watch his weight, he’d indulge in manicotti. Still he never topped 120 pounds.
Dottie was a New Jersey steakhouse hostess when Combest, a divorced father of three, stopped in for a meal in 1970.
“He was riding at Garden State,’’ a now-defunct track in Cherry Hill, she recalled.
His philosophy about relating to horses was simple, she said: “‘If you’re good to a horse, he’ll be good back to you.’ He never thought they were dangerous. He knew how to handle them.’’
Which isn’t to say he escaped riding injuries. One track accident left him with a metal plate in his arm.
“He went off a horse during a race many times,’’ Dottie Combest said.
She moved to South Florida in 1972; Jimmy followed in 1973. He rode his last race several years later, then began training with his brother, Reed.
One of his brother’s horses, L. Grant Jr., was so fond of Jimmy that he’d stick his head out the stall and whinny when he heard Jimmy’s car pull up, Dottie said.
To stay in shape, he played golf and rode pleasure horses. He’d arm-wrestle anyone who said he could beat him, and usually “proved otherwise,’’ his wife said.
He loved talking about racing and, she added, just days before he died told one of his nurses: “Let’s get this over with; I have to get on a horse.’’
In addition to his wife and daughter Kimberly, Jimmy Combest is survived by son James Craig Combest, daughters Karen Jeffords and Colleen Farmer, all of Louisiana, and an African grey parrot named Andy, who’s in the habit of calling out “Are you in there?’’ just like her husband did, when Dottie is in the kitchen.
“He talks in Jimmy’s voice,’’ she said. “It’s kind of pleasant, in a way.’’
There will be a viewing from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Forest Lawn, 2401 Davie Rd., Davie (the “pyramid.’’) A second viewing will be held from 11 a.m.-noon Sunday, followed by church services in the Forest Lawn chapel.
Combest will be entombed wearing one of his custom-made suits and a horse-patterned necktie.