03/04/2015 4:01PM

At 81, Leatherbury getting his due

Barbara D. Livingston
King Leatherbury is a finalist for induction into the Racing Hall of Fame this year.

The last few weeks have been good ones for King Leatherbury.

On Monday, he was named a finalist for induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Ten days ago, Ben’s Cat rejoined Leatherbury’s Laurel Park stable following a winter vacation.

“He’s galloping nice and soft and easy,” Leatherbury said of the $2.3 million earner, who is now 9. “I absolutely think he has another good year in him. He’s his old self.”

Leatherbury, a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday and still sharp as a tack, said he is honored to be nominated to the Hall of Fame.

“The last several years people have been mentioning it to me, but to be honest, I’ve never thought of it very much,” he said. “Someone once told me to make the Hall you had to race at the very top level. If you’re not competing in those races, you won’t get in. But on the other side are people that win a lot of races, like Dale Baird did at Waterford Park, which is now Mountaineer. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Since starting out in 1959, Leatherbury has won 6,449 races to rank fourth all time behind only Baird (9,445), Steve Asmussen (6,976), and Jerry Hollendorfer (6,843). Born in Baltimore and educated at the University of Maryland, Leatherbury has never strayed far from home, winning 26 training titles at Laurel Park, 26 at Pimlico, and four at Delaware Park. He was the leading trainer in the nation by wins in 1976-77 and won 200 races or more 11 straight years from 1974-84.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Leatherbury was part of the Big Four in Maryland racing along with trainers Buddy Delp, Richard Dutrow Sr., and John Tammaro Jr. Armed with large stables, the Big Four had a sometimes-friendly, sometimes-not-so-friendly rivalry, often claiming each other’s horses.

According to Leatherbury, Delp used to refer to the four outfits as “supermarket barns,” meaning the stock would change all the time.

“The claiming made it all the better of a competition and made for good racing,” Leatherbury said. “It made the races very competitive.”

Leatherbury has done things a bit differently than most trainers, opting to work from his home office in the mornings and attend the races in the afternoons.

“I’ve been knocked for that, but the first 10 or 20 years I was right there, doing everything myself,” he said. “At the time, you could only have 30 horses at Laurel, and if you had more, they had to go to Pimlico. So, at one point, I had 30 at Laurel and three at Pimlico. I couldn’t be in both places the same morning, so I did my schedules from home.

“I had a big stable, and I found I was better equipped to work on the phone from home.”

To compensate for working remotely, Leatherbury relies on input from his riders.

“I’m of the opinion that some trainers can watch a horse gallop and see everything that is going on with a horse, but I don’t claim to be able to do that,” Leatherbury said. “I have always thought good riders feel more when they are on a horse than a trainer can see. I use the riders as the main source of my knowledge about how a horse is going.”

Leatherbury owns many of the runners he trains. For many years, he also bred horses, including two of his best, Ben’s Cat and Ah Day, a 10-time stakes winner and earner of $921,574. The pair shares the same second dam, Dronette.

Dronette, a foal of 1978, additionally produced the graded stakes winners Thirty Eight Go Go ($871,229) and Notches Trace ($360,562), who were sold, although Leatherbury did train Thirty Eight Go Go.

“Dronette may have been the building block for all this,” Leatherbury said.

Ben’s Cat has won 23 stakes since debuting as a 4-year-old in 2010. The national attention he has brought to Leatherbury likely played a role in his Hall of Fame nomination.

Ben’s Cat has won the Mister Diz Stakes at Laurel the past five years. He has started his last three campaigns in the Mister Diz following a layoff, but Leatherbury will have to come up with a new plan since the Mister Diz has been dropped from the Laurel schedule.

“That race was always an easy spot for us because it was Maryland-bred,” Leatherbury said. “He never ran his best race in it, but he would win, and it would get him ready for the next one. I’m not sure how we are going to approach his comeback yet, but we have the Jim McKay for him the day before the Preakness. Might have to use an allowance before that.”