King Leatherbury knows how he wants his training career to be defined. He knows how he would like to be remembered.
“If I wanted something on my tombstone,” he said, “it would just be, ‘He won races.’ ”
Leatherbury, 87, has won races all right. He ranked fourth all-time with 6,455 victories when he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2015, the ultimate exclamation point to a career that has spanned parts of seven decades. He currently ranks fifth on the all-time list of leading trainers by wins with more than 6,500.
The Maryland native stayed close to his roots in winning at least 100 races per season for 26 consecutive years from 1972 to 1997. He won at least 200 races every year from 1974 to 1984. He won more often than any other Thoroughbred trainer in the nation in 1976 and 1977.
Business boomed even as he competed against the likes of Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow, and John Tammaro, a group so formidable they became known as the “Big Four.”
Leatherbury would see sources for improvement that others had missed in poorly-bred, inexpensive runners. And he was astute in placing claiming horses at levels where they could succeed. Everything snowballed.
“I was making good claims,” Leatherbury said. “You have an owner and you start winning for them and they claim more horses.”
Some might wonder why the winner of 26 training titles at Laurel Park and another 26 at Pimlico never won a Triple Crown race, particularly in his home state. He fell short with four starters in the Preakness at Pimlico: Indigo Star, fifth, 1978; Thirty Eight Paces, fourth, 1981; I Am the Game, fourth, 1985; and Malibu Moonshine, eighth, 2005.
Perhaps the answer is not so complex.
“My people would claim horses for $20,000, $10,000, $5,000 and buy a yearling for $22,000, something like that,” Leatherbury said. “I didn’t have big clients who wanted to spend $1 million for a horse or $100,000 even.”
Leatherbury caught lightning in a bottle once – and it elevated his career to Hall of Fame heights.
He bred Twofox, an unraced mare, to Parker’s Storm Cat, an unheralded stallion. Ben’s Cat, the result of that pairing, suffered a fractured pelvis at 2 that kept him from competing until he was 4. Leatherbury had such minimal expectations that he priced him for $20,000 in his 2010 debut in a claiming race at Pimlico and for $25,000 in his second start, at Delaware Park.
The big-hearted gelding, managed perfectly by Leatherbury, swept his first eight starts. And he was just getting started.
He went on to be hailed as Maryland Horse of the Year four times and ultimately captured 32 of 63 starts, including 26 stakes wins, in banking more than $2.6 million in purse earnings. Although he displayed ability on dirt and turf, he was campaigned primarily as a turf sprinter in the Mid-Atlantic region, winning for the last time on May 20, 2016. He was retired in June of the following year.
“He just had everything and he put it together,” Leatherbury said of Ben’s Cat. “He was highly intelligent, for one thing. He knew what he was supposed to do. His conformation was right, he lasted a long time, and he had determination.”
For those who questioned why Leatherbury never produced a big horse, well, now he had.
“The Hall of Fame people, they want to see you compete at the highest level and I wasn’t,” Leatherbury said. “But Ben was the one who put me over, no question about that.”
Ben’s Cat was 11 when he died of complications from colic surgery in July 2017. He was known to some as “The People’s Horse,” and his appeal to fans well beyond Maryland was readily apparent when he outpolled such well-known runners as Gun Runner, Arrogate, and Songbird in voting for the Vox Populi Award in 2017.
Leatherbury noted with sadness in January 2018 that his business has diminished in recent years. Many of the owners he worked with died or left the game as part of their retirement. He oversees a small string of horses as he looks to build on a win total certain to stand the test of time.
Note: This story was published in January 2018 and has been updated.
- Graduated from University of Maryland with degree in business administration
- Would hitchhike to play races at Laurel Park while he was an undergraduate student
- Served two years in U.S. Army
- Won first race with Mister L. at Sunshine Park (now Tampa Bay Downs) in 1959
- Friends refer to him as “Leather”