05/17/2005 11:00PM

He's not called King for nothing

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LAUREL, Md. - In the category of Forgot More About Racing Than Most People Know, it seems exceedingly difficult to top King Leatherbury. Having endured and prospered while countless numbers of horsemen have come and gone, Leatherbury long ago achieved icon status during a sensational 45-year training career.

"Some new trainer will come along and get hot, and people will ask me, 'What do you think of this guy?'" Leatherbury, 72, said this week in his Laurel Park barn office. "And I say, 'Let's see how he's doing in five years.'"

Chances are, the new guy doesn't impress Leatherbury. As one of just three trainers in Thoroughbred racing history who have won more than 6,000 races, there isn't much Leatherbury has not seen or done in racing. But even in view of his innumerable feats on the Maryland and adjacent racing circuits, Leather-bury rarely has been thrust into the national spotlight, having run just one horse in Triple Crown events: I Am the Game, the last-place finisher in the 1985 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

Saturday, when the 130th Preakness is run at Pimlico, Leatherbury will have his second Triple Crown starter in Malibu Moonshine, one of the longshots in the field of 14. "Hopefully he'll show what he can do by running third or fourth," said Leatherbury, whose vast experience has made him a hardcore realist.

Despite Malibu Moonshine's meager chances, simply having a starter in the Preakness amounts to a fitting tribute to Leatherbury's longevity and durability. Having started his career in 1959, his remarkable resume includes 6,080 winners (through Tuesday), 51 training titles at Laurel and Pimlico, membership in the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame, and the 2004 Special Award of Merit from Pimlico.

Perhaps more importantly, his life has been enriched to an untold degree by a lifetime in racing. "When you've been in the game as long as I have, you're bound to have plenty of good stories," he said.

And he does. Some stories are about the fierce rivalry among the "Big Four" Maryland trainers of the 1970's. Leatherbury and Grover "Bud" Delp survive, but their colleagues, John Tammaro and Dick Dutrow, have died. "The Delp Man is still hanging in there," said Leatherbury. "I guess it's a race between him and I, who can last the longest."

There is the story about how Leatherbury became a "sheets" trainer even before there was such a thing. "I trained for Len Ragozin before the sheets even came on the market," he said. "He said, 'I'll pick out horses to claim off my sheets, and you train them.'"

Leatherbury eventually became a strict sheets disciple and still uses the Thoro-Graph sheets, produced by Jerry Brown, as the primary tool in his training philosophies.

There is the story of I Am the Game, the only horse to run last in the Derby and Preakness. "Actually, my wife, Linda, named him for me," he said. "People would say, 'Well, that's Leatherbury. He breeds, he races, he bets, he does it all. He's racing. He is the game.' And that's what has stuck after all these years."

Then there was the horse Leatherbury cross-entered in races at Laurel and Penn National the same day. "He ran third or fourth at Laurel, and I couldn't get hold of the stewards at Penn to get him scratched," he said. "So I put the horse on a van, just to show my intentions, and they wouldn't let me out of the race, so he ran again that night, six hours later. He ran third, and somebody claimed him."

For all he has done, it seems somewhat curious that Leatherbury has never been on a ballot for election into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. Dale Baird, the all-time wins leader, was nominated this year, while Jack Van Berg, second in wins, was inducted in the Hall in 1985.

"If it happens, it happens," said Leatherbury. "I don't make a big deal about it. I think one of the qualifications is you have to have trained a superstar. Delp's in, but you can't believe he would be if it weren't for Spectacular Bid. I understand why I'm not in, but it doesn't bother me. I know what I've done in the game."

Leatherbury sometimes is criticized for being a "hands off" trainer, one who delegates the mundane responsibilities of barn life to his staff, but he is quick to respond that his services are not required for such minutiae. Still, don't misread him. Leatherbury can still run his hands down a horse's leg and immediately know what is wrong, or tie a tongue-tie as efficiently as any of his colleagues. Quite literally, he has forgotten more about the details of training and racing horses than many trainers have ever known.

Malibu Moonshine would be a most unlikely winner of the Preakness. But even with a loss, his trainer will be unaffected. After all these years, the Leatherbury legacy is secure, for he is the game.