07/18/2013 5:20PM

Catching up with King Leatherbury

Barbara D. Livingston
King Leatherbury, 80, has accumulated almost 6,400 career wins, placing him fifth all-time among North American trainers.

Ben’s Cat is not the only renowned product to come from the fertile region in Maryland that King Leatherbury long has called home. Roadside stands overflowing with plump crabs or Silver Queen corn are the signature staples that help make Anne Arundel County and its slice of the Chesapeake Bay area the great place that it is.

Ben’s Cat and other millionaire Thoroughbreds are not renewable, however, and Leatherbury, in typical self-deprecating form, blames himself for that. More accurately, the vagaries and frustrations of breeding racehorses essentially chased him out of that end of the business, despite his name being synonymous with excellence in Maryland racing.

“I sold my farm [in Sudley, Md.] nine years ago,” Leatherbury, 80, said recently from his home office in Mitchellville, Md. “I sold it because it was costing me a lot more than I could make. You’d put $15,000 into raising a foal and get $7,500 out of it. I just couldn’t keep going like that.”

Yet before substantially curtailing his operation, Leatherbury bred a couple of stars: Ah Day, who retired last winter with earnings of $921,574, and Ben’s Cat, the turf-sprint specialist whose victory in the Grade 3 Parx Dash on July 5 brought his career record to a remarkable 22 for 33 for earnings of almost $1.6 million.

Ben’s Cat, a 7-year-old gelding by Parker’s Storm Cat, and Ah Day, a 10-year-old gelding by Malibu Moon, hail from the same female line. Dronette, purchased many years ago by Leatherbury, produced 10 foals to race, and the last two were the stakes-placed Twofox (a foal of 1993), the dam of Ben’s Cat, and Endette (a foal of 1994), a career maiden who became the dam of Ah Day.

“If it wasn’t for Dronette, my record in breeding would have been worse than it was,” Leatherbury said. “But we did get lucky with her, real lucky. The chances of that happening were astronomical, but that’s the nature of the business we’re in, I guess.”

Dronette, a foal of 1978, also produced two graded stakes winners in Notches Trace and Thirty Eight Go Go.

Leatherbury inherited his farm in 1976 from his late father, also a horseman, and through the years, he had bred useful horses with regularity, peaking with as many as 20 mares in the 1980s. But as that proved more difficult, he began to sell off or even give away some of his less-productive mares.

“It was just petering out,” said Leatherbury, who ranks fifth among trainers in North American history with almost 6,400 career wins. “I was trying to weed all my bad mares out – and most of them were bad – because I got to where I was breeding slow horses. It wasn’t doing anybody any good.”

Leatherbury said he still keeps some horses, including “a mare or two,” boarded at private farms. Twofox, now 20, has not produced a registered foal since 2010, although Leatherbury said Dr. Tom Bowman, a veterinarian and reproductive specialist who co-founded the Northview Stallion Station in northeastern Maryland, “has been trying to get her in foal one last time. He’s got her up there right now, seeing if he can’t work one more little miracle with her.”

Meanwhile, Leatherbury continues to operate his stable as he always has, working the phones from his home office in the mornings and going to the races in the afternoons.

“Can you believe I’m 80? The sad thing is, all the guys I started with are gone,” he said, referring to the halcyon days of the 1970s, when he was friendly rivals with Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow, and John Tammaro. “I’m still very fortunate, rap on wood. I’m in decent shape, I’m very active, and my mind still works to a degree of getting by.”

Leatherbury is ambivalent about what invariably arises when his career is discussed in whole, and that is whether he should be elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“There are two opinions of it, and I understand them both,” he said. “I’ve been told that in order to get there, you have to compete at the very top level of racing, and I haven’t done that. On the other hand, to have accumulated the kinds of numbers I have, it takes quite a bit to do that. So, I don’t know. If it happens one day, I’ll be happy, but if not, I will be just fine with that, too.”