10/10/2012 3:11PM

Jerardi: Leatherbury's numbers, longevity merit place in Hall of Fame

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer King T. Leatherbury ranks third all time in wins.

Imagine this training life. Began in 1959. Had 100 or more winners for 26 consecutive years, from 1972 to 1997. Won 1,303 races during his best four years (1975-1978) while never winning fewer than 300 in any of those years. Has 6,350 career winners, third all time.

The man just 66 winners in front of him has 5,000 more starters. Unlike the men who surround him on the winners list (Jack Van Berg and Steve Asmussen), King T. Leatherbury has never had divisions of horses on multiple circuits. He began in Maryland and stayed in Maryland, with summer junkets to Delaware Park when that was essentially a part of the Maryland circuit.

Van Berg is in the Hall of Fame as he should be. Asmussen will get into the Hall of Fame as he should. Leatherbury never even gets a serious Hall of Fame mention.

Time to take a long look at The King. And what better time than now when he is training the best horse of his life at the age of 79.

I was at Laurel Park last Saturday when Ben’s Cat became only the fourth horse to win a Maryland Million race for the third time, joining Hall of Famer Safely Kept among others. It was Leatherbury’s record 10th Maryland Million win. I was at Parx Racing on Sept. 3 when Ben’s Cat, looking hopelessly beaten on a course soaked with heavy rains, ran down front-runner Great Mills and Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Chamberlain Bridge to win the Turf Monster for the second consecutive year and give Leatherbury his first $1 million horse.

Maybe, that’s it. This was King’s first $1 million horse. But that really misses the point.

Halls of Fame should be about consistency and longevity. They should be about what you do with what you have. They should not about the elitism that is still far too prevalent in this sport.

No, Leatherbury has never been a factor in the Triple Crown. Even his major stakes winners are names few would recognize. The big races are certainly a huge part of the sport, but the day-to-day action also matters. That is Leatherbury’s realm and few have done it better.

No way to know this, but Leatherbury figures he may have claimed more horses than anybody in history. Now, here he is with a horse that he was not sure would ever make the races. Ben’s Cat had a broken pelvis and did not make his debut until May of his 4-year-old season. Naturally, King put him in for $20,000. Dorothy’s Diamond was favored that day at 1-2. Ben’s Cat was 9-2. The pair dueled around the track before Ben’s Cat got away late. King, who has been known to bet, probably liked the price.

Dorothy’s Diamond did not win his next race, but, away from Ben’s Cat, won the two after that by a combined 19 1/4 lengths. Ben’s Cat? He won his next seven, but King had to put him back in for a claiming price in that second start, winning a nonwinners-of-two lifetime for $25,000.

Since then, Ben’s Cat has won 13 stakes and $1.2 million. He is 11 for 16 on grass and 7 for 11 on dirt. A turf sprint specialist the last two years, Ben’s Cat just wins. He does not do second or third. He has those 18 wins, 2 seconds, and 1 third.

The Turf Monster was a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In race, but Ben’s Cat is a by a $2,000 sire out of one of Leatherbury’s mares. The now 6-year-old is not Breeders’ Cup nominated. It would cost $100,000 to supplement to the BC Turf Sprint. The King owns the horse as well as trains him. So, he could take some of that $1.2 million and head for Santa Anita.

Leatherbury, however, is a businessman who revolutionized the claiming business the way D. Wayne Lukas revolutionized the stakes business. He makes business decisions, not emotional decisions. He said he is not likely to put up the $100,000 to run Ben’s Cat down the hill.

Perhaps if he did put up the paper and Ben’s Cat got the money, everybody would notice what Leatherbury has done. Really, that should not be necessary. He has already done quite enough.

No, he has never spent as much time at the barn as some other trainers, preferring to manage the stable, but not micromanage it. He is not a horse whisperer, but how many are there really beyond Allen Jerkens and Charlie Whittingham. The trainer as knower of all things has always been kind of fraud perpetrated through the years by those who would rather deal in myth than reality.

Leatherbury does not nominate any of his horses to the Breeders’ Cup because, he told me after the Turf Monster, “the kind of horses I breed, what chance have I got to have one of the best horses in the country. It didn’t make sense to do.”

It did not. It does not. Neither, of course, does Ben’s Cat, King’s horse of a lifetime in a lifetime of horses.

So, what about the Hall of Fame, King?

“It doesn’t bother me,” Leatherbury said. “I’ve had my 15 minutes a million times.”

Still, it is past time to give King T. Leatherbury a few minutes to speak in Saratoga Springs one summer. And a plaque that would explain just what he has done and how long he has done it.