Sometimes the numbers really are overwhelming. Maryland trainer King T. Leatherbury (I pretty much can’t type his name without including the T) has won more than 6,400 races. He’s trained the winners of more than $61 million.
But those aren’t the numbers I like the most. They are 81, 55 and 24.
He’s 81 years old. He won his first race 55 years ago. And his current stable star, Ben’s Cat, owns 24 lifetime victories.
In an era of fast-arcing careers in Thoroughbred racing, those numbers carry weight, impact, power. Leatherbury has a wisdom about him that comes with eight decades of living. He trained his first winner in 1959, before many of his peers in the program were born. He trains a horse whose career would be considered a success if it were chopped up and divided among eight horses.
And yet, Leatherbury rarely gets considered for Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame. Don’t rush to judgment and claim bias, Leatherbury is not alone in being on the outside looking in at the national honor. There are others who waited, or are waiting. Usually, the model is the same.
A trainer bases his stable on a lesser circuit or maintains just one division. He fills his barn with mainly claimers and rarely enters horses at tracks with expansive television coverage and even more rarely enters horses in stakes.
Leatherbury nearly wrote that model. People in racing know of him, vaguely. Mention his name and you get either “Oh, the Ben’s Cat guy, yeah I know him,” or “That guy who used to win all the races in Maryland? Yeah, I’ve heard of him. He’s still training?”
Leatherbury’s horses race almost exclusively in the Mid-Atlantic. He claims horses, frequently. He makes no apologies for being as much handicapper as conditioner–using speed figures, past performances and gut instincts to spot his horses. Leatherbury has never trained a national champion. His list of graded stakes wins goes only 22 races deep. Of course, his career started 14 years before stakes were graded. Face it, when compared to Hall of Famers like Bill Mott, Bobby Frankel, Allen Jerkens, D. Wayne Lukas, Shug McGaughey and so on, Leatherbury does not measure up. He’s never going to lead the country in earnings or train Hall of Fame horses.
But he ought to be in the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t always so clear to me, but the length and depth of his career shouts Hall of Famer. Leatherbury’s life is training horses. He’s won more races than any trainer but three. He topped the 200-win mark for 11 consecutive years in the 1970s and ’80s, and went over 300 on four occasions. Perhaps even more impressively, Leatherbury went 26 straight years with at least 100 wins. That’s right, from 1972 through 1997 the man won 100 or more races. That alone could be a career.
In 2013 Leatherbury produced 57 wins and more than $1.6 million, his highest totals since 2006 and 1998, respectively.
When given the rare chance, Leatherbury developed top-class horses. Taking Risks joined the shedrow via a $20,000 claim in 1993 and went on to win 10 races for the trainer. The success included a win in the 1994 Grade 1 Phillip Iselin at Monmouth Park.
Lately, Leatherbury and Ben’s Cat have been nearly inseparable. The almost black homebred gelding rolled up the past-performance hill from maiden claimer to graded stakes winner to unofficial title of Horse Everyone Wants to See in the Breeders’ Cup.
Bred, owned and trained by Leatherbury, the 8-year-old will (probably) never run in the Breeders’ Cup but has finished first, second or third in his last 12 starts. Nobody else could have gotten more out of Ben’s Cat, who didn’t race until his 4-year-old season.
I’m a Hall of Fame voter, and have never nominated Leatherbury. I’m not sure why. At first, I wasn’t sure he belonged. Then I must have figured somebody else would. Now, after years of looking at finalists (I don’t pick the finalists) I feel Leatherbury belongs.
I spent a summer next to his shedrow at Timonium in 1983 and barely saw the man. My image of Hall of Fame trainers usually involves guys watching horses train, checking legs, coming back in the afternoon to water off, spitting in the dirt and telling old racing stories.
Of course, none of that matters. Not in the shadow of a career without comparison. Leatherbury has simply overwhelmed doubters.
The Marylander most easily compares with Jerry Hollendorfer. He’s won more than 6,600 races, most of them in northern California. He started training in 1979, and didn’t win a graded stakes until 1988. He was good, a legend in his home state. Then along came Blind Luck. Hollendorfer had had top horses before, but nothing like this. The filly won major races in 2009 and 2010. The next summer, though he’d been nominated previously, her trainer joined the Hall of Fame.
Leatherbury can’t compete with Hollendorfer or the other trainers with powerhouse stables, not anymore. But the man who named his best horse after his father’s friend Ben Parker deserves to be compared to them.
In the Hall of Fame.