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How Johnny Carson’s Bandleader Doc Severinsen Lost Out on a Big-Time Kentucky Derby Winner

The legendary 'Tonight Show' bandleader tells 'Saratoga Living' the greatest Derby sob story in history.

At one point in the 1980s, Doc Severinsen had the chance to purchase eventual Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Sunday Silence for just $50,000.

Earlier this year, while working on a story about Caffè Lena’s 60th anniversary, I reached out to a number of music legends about their time performing at the venue. One was 92-year-old Doc Severinsen, famed Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson bandleader and jazz trumpeter, who had played there with his band, the San Miguel Five, the summer of 2019. 

I found an email contact on Doc’s website, fired a note off into cyberspace and figured I’d never hear back. Then, one weekend morning, months later, I got a call from an unfamiliar New York City number. Suspicious, I let it ring a few times and then picked up. “HELLO?” said a gruff, older man’s voice on the other end of the line. Assuming it was spam, I chickened out and hung up. Minutes later, the same number called and left a voicemail. It turned out that I’d hung up on none other than the legendary Doc Severinsen, and that he was interested in talking to me for my story. 

We later connected, and though his quotes about Caffè Lena never made it off of the cutting-room floor, it was a seemingly fantastical tale that he told me about his days as a racehorse owner in California and coming close to owning the winner of the 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Sunday Silence, that piqued my interest. The interview sat in my recorder until recently. And now, you get to hear it yourself. 

A word of warning: I can’t independently confirm this story—the horse breeder that Severinsen refers to passed away a long time ago. But recent Saratoga Living cover star Kevin Bright, a friend of Severinsen’s who filmed a documentary on Doc’s life, told me that he vouches for Doc and the story. And the trumpeter himself has told a similar version of the story to other journalists, including one at the Courier-Journal, the newspaper of note in Louisville where the Kentucky Derby is run. So I’m going to take him at his word. 

You have a long history of being a lover of horse racing. Have you ever owned a Triple Crown race-winning horse?
No. But I’ll tell you how close I came. I had a friend, Albert Yank, who would get 25 or so Thoroughbreds before a big sale—some of them he bred himself, some of them he would buy. He had a lot of big-time horses. So, I went by his farm one day at Hollywood Park, and they were having a sale of 2-year-olds in training. Yank said [mimicking a Southern accent], “Well, my friend, it’s good to see you.” I said, “How’s it going?” He said, “Well, my friend, I have for you the next Kentucky Darby winner.” I’d bought a lot of racehorses from him, and I said, “Oh really.” He said, “Now, before I bring this horse out here, I’ll tell you right now, he looks pretty shitty, because he was in an accident in a trailer, and he got scuffed up, and he’s mean as cat shit and twice as nasty. But let’s get serious here. I got your Darby horse this year.” And I said, “No kidding.” He says, “I’m going to bring him out and show him to you.” And he brought him out, and everything he said was true: He was ugly, mean and sickle-hocked in the back. 

This was against the law, and it still is, but Albert said, “Now, my friend, because I want to do you a nice thing here, I am going to let you have this horse for $50,000 right this minute. The worst that could happen is somebody wants to pay a quarter of a million for him, and you just made yourself $200,000 and didn’t have to leave the premises.” I said, “Well, that sounds pretty good.” He said, “Every year you buy some piece of shit, and you come moaning to me that he didn’t win any races. This horse, I’m telling you, is going to win the Kentucky Darby.” I said, “Well, my business manager and my wife are getting after me about spending money on racehorses.” He said, “It’s up to you, my friend. Here’s your Darby horse.” I said, “You know what, Albert, I’m going to go get lunch, and when I come back, we’ll talk some more.” He said, “That’s fine with me.” 

Trumpeter and bandleader Doc Severinsen and Johnny Carson (Doc Severinsen)

Of course, I didn’t go back. On the day of the Kentucky Derby, and this would’ve been a year later, I’m in the kitchen cooking, and I know the Derby’s about to come on, so I sit down and turn it on. My wife [at the time] was in the kitchen, and she didn’t want anything to do with racehorses or the racetrack or anything. The race starts, and I go over to watch it, and I said, “That horse is going to win this race!” And he won the race. My wife said, “What’s the deal?” I said, “I had a chance to buy that horse for $50,000, and I didn’t do it because I thought you were going to be pissed off at me!” She said, “Did you bet on it?” I said, “Yes, of course, I did! I had $1,000 dollars on him.” She said, “Do you mean to tell me, you knew that much about that horse, and you only bet $1,000?” Well, I’ll tell you, there’s still a hole in the roof right where I went through it. Everything I told you was the god’s honest truth.

What was the horse’s name?
Sunday Silence. I’ll tell you, he won the Derby, he won the Preakness and he lost the Belmont by a lip. They had to take a picture at the end, and it looked like it might be a dead heat. Now, I’m holding my fingers apart, and that can’t have been more than three quarters of an inch. Then, they sold the horse to a bunch of Japanese guys for $6 million. I get sick to my stomach every time I think about it. 

[Editor’s Note: The sum paid for Sunday Silence to stand stud in Japan was actually $2.5 million for a 25 percent stake and then $7.5 million for the additional 75 percent stake. In other words, sorry, Doc.]  

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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