Updated on 09/17/2011 11:16AM

Leatherbury bridges horseplayer-horseman gap


WASHINGTON, D.C. - King Leatherbury has never received much national recognition, and his accomplishments tend to be taken for granted at home. But Saturday he reached a milestone attained by only two other men in history when he won his 6,000th race as a Thoroughbred trainer.

Leatherbury captured the seventh race at Timonium with a previously undistinguished maiden named Cherokee Sunrise. Throughout his career, he has dealt principally with such horses of modest quality. While most of his brethren yearn to train high-class stakes runners, Leatherbury has always been content to manage claiming horses; he views the claiming game as an enthralling battle of wits. He developed a unique approach to the business - one that surely appalls some racing purists - and he excelled at it for decades.

When he was a business student at the University of Maryland, Leatherbury fell in love with horse racing, hitchhiking to Laurel and Bowie after his classes. His father owned a few Thoroughbreds, and as Leatherbury observed their trainers' work, he thought he could do at least as well. "Not many people then operated in a businesslike manner," he said.

The game was played in a genteel fashion, and trainers seldom claimed horses from each other.

As Leatherbury launched his career in Maryland in the early 1960's, one trainer had begun to upset the traditional way of doing things. Bud Delp was assembling a stable of unprecedented size, claiming horses aggressively and managing them aggressively, often dropping them in class to a level where they were unbeatable. "Delp had the first 'supermarket stable,' " Leatherbury recalled. "In order to compete with him, you had to get larger."

Leatherbury built a strong stable, too, and maneuvered his horses shrewdly, because he was a tireless student of the game. He loves to handicap and bet, and to this day he spends most afternoons at Laurel poring over the Daily Racing Form and his ThoroGraph speed-figure sheets.

He said: "I don't play golf; I don't have a boat; I've never taken a cruise in my life. Betting is my hobby, and it's always helped me to evaluate horses."

While most trainers' main preoccupation is the physical condition of their animals, Leatherbury looks at them with the objective eye of a handicapper. If one of his horses wins a $10,000 claiming race but does so in slow time, he might drop the animal to $8,000 the next time he runs. If the $10,000 claimers at Philadelphia Park are exceptionally weak, he might decide that his best move is to ship the horse out of town. Plenty of trainers operate this way today, but Leatherbury's approach was rare when he emerged as one of the nation's most successful trainers in the 1970's.

What makes Leatherbury unique to this day is his belief that management - choosing horses to claim and picking the right spots to enter them - is more important than traditional horsemanship. Great trainers are supposed to scrutinize their horses every day in order to judge their condition and spot incipient physical problems. The late Dick Dutrow, who was the rival of Leatherbury and Delp in the 1970's when they constituted Maryland's Big Three, would go into the stall of every horse every day to feel their ankles and knees.

When he started as a trainer, Leatherbury tried to emulate the traditional approach. "The first couple years I'd walk every one of my horses to the track and watch them gallop," he recalled. "But I just felt it was a waste of time. What is there to see?"

So Leatherbury adopted a heretical approach to his business. He left the care of his animals to his assistants. On most days he didn't even go to his barn. Instead, he spent his time in his home-office plotting strategy.

In the mid-1980's, Leatherbury had one of his best horses ever, I Am the Game, and entered him in a $200,000 stakes at Laurel. Famed horseman Jack Van Berg trained his main rival, Herat, and flew from Louisville, Ky. to supervise his colt's workout before the stakes. But when I Am The Game had his final workout, Leatherbury didn't even bother to drive a few miles from home to watch it. Later in the day he phoned his exercise rider and asked, "How did he go?"

Leatherbury's methods worked for decades. He was annually one of the nation's top race-winning trainers, and in 1977 and 1978 he led the nation in victories. The only trainers who top his 6,000 career wins are Dale Baird, the perennial kingpin of minor league Mountaineer Park, and Van Berg.

Only in the last few years has Leatherbury slipped - at the Laurel Park meeting that ended Friday, he went for 0 for 26 as everybody waited for him to win No. 6,000 there. He looks at his decline with characteristic realism. "Now 50 percent of the guys are doing the things we did 25 years ago," he said.

Young, smart trainers such as Scott Lake and Dale Capuano are now playing the claiming game more aggressively and more shrewdly than the 70-year-old Leatherbury. Owners are apt to gravitate to them rather than Leatherbury. But even though he is not as productive as he used to be, he still has lost none of his passion for training, handicapping, and betting.

Few trainers have had so much fun and success. There is one more thing that Leatherbury should get from his training career: a plaque in the Racing Hall of Fame.

The trainers enshrined in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., are typically men who have trained for Establishment stables in New York; usually they have had the good fortune to be associated with at least one big-name champion. Leatherbury doesn't fit the typical Hall of Fame mold, and his rejection of any claim to being a hands-on horseman breaks all the canons of his profession. But he stayed on top of the game for the better part of four decades, and his 6,000 victories dwarf the achievements of most trainers using orthodox methods.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post