03/23/2013 4:23PM

Laurel: King Leatherbury toasted in anticipation of 80th birthday

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Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
The Maryland Jockey Club honors trainer King Leatherbury (second from right) three days prior to his 80th birthday.

Maryland legend King Leatherbury got an early birthday present Saturday when he was honored after the third race at Laurel Park.

Leather, who turns 80 on Tuesday, was a bit sheepish about all the fuss in the winner’s circle, where a banner was unfurled with the slogan “Long live the King,” wishing him happy birthday. Fans at the track received a King Leatherbury button and a birthday cupcake.

“It is a little embarrassing but I appreciate the tribute,” said Leatherbury, who ranks fourth on the all-time list of trainers with 6,373 wins.

During a career which began when he saddled his first winner at Sunshine Park in Florida in 1959, Leatherbury has a combined 52 training titles at Laurel Park and Pimlico. During the 1970s, he put together four consecutive 300-win seasons and led the nation in 1977 and 1978.

“I got started because my father had horses, a breeder and owner, and I just enjoyed betting on them, really, so I decided to get in the game,” Leatherbury said. “I have never really considered this work. I enjoy it, which has probably made the difference.”

For all his accomplishments and longevity, one honor has eluded him. Leatherbury is not a member of racing’s Hall of Fame.

“I think the individuals involved in placing the names on the Hall of Fame nomination ballot need to wake up and examine his record,” said Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron, who rode for Leatherbury in the mid- 1970s. “They don’t even have to dig deep on how incredibly successful this man has been.

“I think King was the easiest person to ride for, especially of the big trainers,” McCarron added. “He was always so calm and collected - never really got over-excited. I don’t ever remember him in a bad mood, which is unusual because I know he likes to gamble a bit. “.”

With one week remaining in Laurel’s winter-spring meet, Leatherbury is vying with Mike Trombetta and Juan Vazquez for second place in the trainer standings. Through Friday, all three had 15 wins, 16 behind leader Hugh McMahon.

Leatherbury indicated that his star horse Ben’s Cat will make his 2013 debut at Pimlico on April 6 in the Mister Diz Stakes. He will be looking for his fourth consecutive victory in the sprint.