Maryland trainer Leatherbury takes place among Thoroughbred racing’s legends.
Vinnie Perrone was recognized for “Hall of Fame Ride: Maryland Trainer Leatherbury takes place among Thoroughbred Racing Legend,” a profile of King T. Leatherbury, which appeared in the MHBA publication Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred in August 2015. Perrone is a previous Eclipse Award winner, having won for his 2008 story on the late Clem Florio which appeared in the magazine.
Early one Saturday afternoon, white French doors barely opened to a clubby simulcast room at Laurel Park, King Leatherbury turns from Joyce the pari-mutuel clerk, tucks a pack of square white tickets into the pocket of his blue short-sleeve shirt, eyes an approaching reporter and teases the air with eight words that animate his incomparable horse-training portrait.
“Why don’t we drive up to the Horseshoe?”
Leatherbury had set the time and place for this interview days earlier, only to pivot now toward the Baltimore casino. Driving alone the 20-odd miles would be a bore, he says; yakking about his National Hall of Fame election maybe slightly less so. Combining them, yeah, would ease the monotony.
Is it problematic to do the interview while you’re driving?
“Hell no,” he says, addressing a white Lexus that clearly has gone a distance of ground. “I handicap while I’m driving.”
Efficiency, adaptability, determination, daring, calculation, optimism and an unquenchable thirst for action even now at 82: The mythic balloon Leatherbury designed and built and used to ascend racing’s celestial kingdom displays brilliantly, as does a Lexus dashboard aglow with an orange check-engine icon, a red exclamation mark in the center of the tachometer and, below those, another orange advisory: TAILLAMP FAILURE. The odometer reads 262,623.
He puts it in drive.
Ever willing to do the interview, Leatherbury nonetheless had questioned what more might be learned when EVERYTHING about him had been phrased and rephrased. Reminded of our last exchange, which produced revelations about his vast collection of walking sticks (none of which he needs), his written poetry, knack for carpentry and distaste for old photographs that cast a younger King Leatherbury with darker hair and more of it, he’d said, “OK. We’ll see.”
It doesn’t take long. Barely off track grounds, right onto Whiskey Bottom Road, the conversation touches Saratoga Race Course, site of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Aug. 7. A typical Hall of Fame trainer might carry countless memories of the Spa, of entire seasons spent in the sweet green New York highlands with stakes-meant stables and racing royalty and dinners at Siro’s. Leatherbury, a claiming trainer to his core, claims to have tramped the Saratoga grounds twice.
He turns left on Rt. 198, headed east.
“Saratoga’s a very interesting story,” he says with vintage sing-song pitch. “I was training for Bill Page of Bill Page Pontiac there in the Washington area. He was rollin’, he was claimin’ horses, and he had some 3-year-old filly; I forget her name. We van her up there and run her.
“The story there is that Bill Page, me and my wife, Linda, had flown up there on some little old plane. Comin’ back, we run into this thunderstorm, and I’m tellin’ you, it was so severe not one of us said one word; we were just in there holdin’ our breath. The hail was hittin’ the windshield so hard, it felt like somebody with a hammer. BAM! BAM! I’m thinkin’ the windshield’s gotta break. We finally made it down–pilot didn’t even go back to the airport that he started from; he landed at some close-by little airport–and you could see the dents in the wings where the hail had hit so hard. And I know he was scared. We were so scared, we were afraid to even say, ‘I’m worried about this.’ That was really a thing I’ll never forget. That coulda been the end of K.T. Leatherbury right there.”
The postscript: Economy’s disciple, he’ll drive to Saratoga with family and friends for the celebrated Hall of Fame welcome, not for fear of flying but for its bother.
“I know the planes are fast, and they’re safe–I’m not worried about safety–but, God darn, you’ve got to get to the airport so long, park, wait in line to get through all the security things–takes forever. So all that time, you could be drivin’. So unless you’re goin’ to California or somethin’, I’m just against flyin’. The last time I flew, I had a seat that wouldn’t go back. I’m sittin’ like this”–perfectly rigid and vertical–“the whole damn flight.”
Up the entrance ramp onto Baltimore-Washington Parkway north, the car above speed but smooth and sure in his 10-and-2 hands. He moves into the leftmost of three lanes, steering conversationally toward Saratoga.
“Right at the end of the Delaware meet–God knows when this was–but Larry Abbundi was the racing secretary. So the racing secretary at Saratoga calls him up and says, ‘I wonder, could I possibly hustle Leatherbury in a race?’ The guy had a steeplechase race–only had five horses in, but he said, ‘I’ll let it go with six.’ He said, ‘Leatherbury probably doesn’t know this, but he claimed a horse that can really jump.’
“So he calls me and says, ‘You know you got a horse over there that can jump?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, you wanna run in a jumpin’ race?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Put him on the van, ship him up there, Jerry Fishback rides him. Lo and behold, the horse wins. I’m battin’ a thousand as a steeplechase trainer. And I quit the [steeplechase] game; I figured this is the time to get out.”
One steeplechase score, 6,455 flat-track scores (through June) and innumerable tales, quips and riddles bolster Leatherbury’s sensationally unorthodox resume. In the very way he spurned racing’s time-held conventions by becoming a hands-off, stay-at-home trainer, so his verbal horseplay might challenge sensibilities. Hence the conundrum: How much of his best material can he use for his Hall of Fame acceptance speech and still strike the right grateful, reverent notes?
At the Alibi breakfast during Preakness Week, Leatherbury thanked Pimlico for the honorary postmaster status granted Ben’s Cat–his sprint-happy, turf-scorching, stakes-gobbling homebred–then delivered an eight-minute standup routine that had ’em howling. One such serving:
A guy goes to the doctor and gets looked at, and the doctor says, “You know, you’re in pretty good shape for 50 years old.” Guy says, “Who said I’m 50? I’m 60.” Doctor says, “That’s even better then. How old was your father when he died?” Guy says, “Who said he died? He’s 80.” Doctor says, “Well, good–you’ve got good genes. So how old was your grandfather when he died?” Guy says, “Who said he died? He’s a hundred years old. In fact, he’s gettin’ married tomorrow.” Doctor says, “Why in the world would a hundred-year-old man want to get married?” Guy says, “Who said he wants to get married?”
“I was rollin’, man,” he says of the performance. “And I didn’t realize how good I was, so to speak, until somebody showed me a recording of it. I said, ‘God darn, I did look professional up there. I was rattlin’ along.’ And once you get the people laughin’, you got ’em.”
He eases into the center lane, then the right and asks for speed.
“All this started because an awards dinner is boring as hell unless you’re gettin’ an award,” he says. “So that’s what started me years ago tryin’ to throw a little humor into these things, and lighten these things up. So now that I’m known for that, I’m expected to do it. Now I have to do it.
“So here’s the deal: Up there [at Saratoga], I can use a lot of my old stuff because it’ll be virgin ears. You know how you buy a CD, The Best of Andy Williams? This’ll be the best of Leatherbury. I’m not gonna go through the stuff that only gets a small laugh. But I also can’t take for granted that I’m just gonna go up there and do some shtick. I’ve got to build that in gently and say how serious this is. So that is a fine line there I’m gonna have to work out. This is the highest honor you can get in our industry, so I’ve got to acknowledge that–how much it means to me. I’m very honored.”
Whatever Leatherbury packs for Saratoga, assistant trainer Avon Thorpe suggests, his best material is sure to go along. “He’s always laughin’ and jokin’,” Thorpe says. “He’s always got a story to tell you.”
Since 1991, Thorpe has sampled the Leatherbury repertoire, often from a distance. By the time Thorpe came aboard, a recent Maryland rule allowing telephone use in racetrack barns encouraged Leatherbury to leave the stables altogether and work from home.
He established training schedules there for 40 horses at Pimlico and 40 more at Laurel, scoured Jerry Brown’s Thoro-Graph sheets for potential claims and wagers, and established a hierarchy in which exercise riders reported to assistant trainers and assistant trainers to him. Swapping racetrack yarns with other trainers made for levity and good appearances, Leatherbury said, but insight grew more from an exercise rider’s tactile sensations than a trainer’s long-range vision.
So Thorpe implements Leatherbury’s spoken edicts, ad-libbing when circumstances dictate, and relishes “the best friend I ever had.”
“He’ll teach you a lot and then pretty much test you on stuff,” says Thorpe, 42. “It’s amazing. He trusts your opinion. I could go on and on. Business-wise, he’s the mellowest person I’ve ever seen. All the years I’ve been with him, I’ve seen him get mad maybe twice.”
But the stories keep coming.
Left: Leatherbury with his father Taylor (right) and a stable pony. Right: Leatherbury and then stalwart campaigner Port Conway Lane, who won 52 races for several trainers.
“He once had an old Chevy,” Thorpe says, “and he had to blow it out goin’ down the hill to get it goin’ up the hill. So there he is, pickin’ up speed, then blows it out goin’ down the hill and passes a police [car] chasin’ another car. He makes it up the hill, glad that he did, and the police pull him over and let the other car go.”
At the moment, Leatherbury slows for the parkway’s anticipated end south of the city, turns right into the Horseshoe Casino parking lot and tips his play.
The red and black numbers of the roulette wheel speak in mathematical code, he says: They might break even over time, but they clump along the way.
“If it comes eight straight reds, I wait for it to break,” he says. “And once it breaks, then I follow back with it. And that seems to happen three out of five times. And if that’s the case, then I’m gonna beat the house.”
Leatherbury parks, and from the driver’s-door pocket produces a once-white greeting-card bag, removes a binder clip and pulls out a few dark casino chips–not enough to make his standard $2,000 wager.
“I wanna bet the same thing all the time,” he says. “The worst thing in the world is to bet $1,000 on a winner and $2,000 on a loser.”
He takes the steps down one floor to the casino, saying, “It’s the only exercise I get. I don’t lift weights or anything.” He walks a measured pace into the casino, scans the roulette towers.
“You’re lookin’ for that line,” he says, and there it is–a tower showing seven straight black numbers in an undisturbed column. He awaits the interruption, gets it with 12 red.
He hands a casino card to a pit boss whose smile implies recognition, lays down $2,000 on red, hedging with $50 “insurance” plays on the green 0 and 00. With 20 of the 38 possible outcomes covered, he’s positioned for a $4,000 return on red and a $1,750 return on either green. The white marble-sized ball skitters about the roulette wheel, slows the dance and rests on 33 black.
Leatherbury shows no reaction. “I’m not gonna try to chase with some more bets,” he says, tone unwavering as he clatters a few chips from hand to hand. “Once the thing is broken, I don’t want to go back and repair it. It’s unfortunate the venture ended so soon.”
At that, he exits.
“He’s such a unique person,” says Donald Barr, who has trained in Maryland close to 50 years. “For all he’s accomplished, one of the things that gets overlooked is his sense of discipline and ability to stay in the game. Anybody who can survive the grandstand and betting all these years is something special.”
The two share a needling routine that involves Ben’s Cat, and his morning paces far from Leatherbury’s view. It goes something like this:
Barr: “Ben’s doing pretty good. He worked good yesterday.”
Leatherbury: “I’m glad you’re payin’ attention.”
Like his trainer, Ben’s Cat has become an exalted racing sphinx. His pedigree–by Parker’s Storm Cat from stakes-placed dam Twofox (by Thirty Eight Paces)–stoked thoughts of usefulness, the hopes then tempered after stablehands discovered him lame behind before he’d raced.
An unwavering pragmatist, Leatherbury declined to seek high-cost diagnostics, saying, “It was not worth doin’ that with the economics of it.” Instead, he relied on trusted veterinarian James Stewart (since retired), who surmised a broken pelvis requiring six months’ stall rest.
Ben’s Cat’s first two races, in the spring of his 4-year-old season, revealed Leatherbury’s expectations: a $20,000 maiden claimer, which he won, and a $25,000 never-won-two claimer, which he won. The dark bay gelding followed those with six consecutive victories and keeps revving at age 9. Through June, he’d won 24 stakes (four graded), 29 races overall (from 48 starts), more than $2.4 million and a Maryland-bred Horse of the Year title each of the past four years. Maybe as remarkably, he’s left Leatherbury groping for words to explain it.
“His endurance is because he didn’t race as a 2-year-old or 3-year-old, ’cause a horse is not fully mature until he’s, like, 5,” Leatherbury says. “All his bones and everything were matured, so there was no damage done to him early. His ability is just one of those things . . . and luck.”
The emergent, consistent, come-from-behind dazzle of Ben’s Cat won him legions of fans, and moved Glenn Lane to act. One of the nation’s top race-winning owners during the 1980s, Lane considered Leatherbury first and foremost in establishing a Maryland division and held firm even after an awkward start: Their first collaboration would fuel future stories when Leatherbury’s help brought the wrong horse to the paddock.
“Horsemen would look down on the fact that he wasn’t at the barn every day,” Lane says. “But he was a businessman and a manager and taught me so much about the business from a management perspective. The feedback was so much better than from somebody who had his hands on a horse’s legs every day.”
Based in New Jersey, Lane had impacted the sport as a cannon shot: His racing stable encompassed 100 horses at a given time, and he figures Leatherbury’s comprised about 200 of his 700 victories. But by 1990 Lane closed shop and concentrated on his job in financial services technology and operations.
For close to 20 years he had no contact with Leatherbury, then telephoned in the fall of 2011 as Leatherbury contemplated supplementing Ben’s Cat to the Breeders’ Cup for $100,000 (with potential help from investors). Linda, thrilled to reconnect, framed the Breeders’ Cup possibility this way: “Yes, he’s still very cheap,” she told Lane. “In fact, I want to let you know we’re talking on a rotary phone.”
Assessing the odds, Leatherbury deemed the supplement an unwise investment (as he would the following year), but he’d realize a payoff nonetheless. The fuse with Lane reignited, the two began speaking often. In time, Ben’s Cat’s sustained accomplishments, and his trainer’s, prompted Lane to tout Leatherbury in Hall of Fame circles.
“I’m not taking responsibility for it, but I did what I could,” Lane says. “I think Ben’s Cat and that push and seeing the way he managed that horse reminded people that he was still around.”
Maryland trainers didn’t forget. “He’s still a thorn in your side every time you try to go against him,” Barr says. Then: “Every year, when they had the Hall of Fame announcements and he’d be left out, all the guys in the business would say, ‘What a farce it is. What else is left for him to do?’ We always felt like he was getting shunned. Eveybody thought it was a miscarriage of justice that he wasn’t in . . . It’s long overdue.”
“I think the guy’s a genius,” says John Burke III, recently retired Maryland chief steward and theretofore a longtime trainer. “To do what he’s done is amazing. He’s the eighth wonder of the world.”
Ever the realist, Leatherbury had remained sanguine about his Hall of Fame chances.
“Some of the feedback I got was that . . . in order to get this [election], you had to perform at the very top level in racing. I’ve never run in a Breeders’ Cup race. Never run in the Derby. Never run in the Belmont. . . So you couldn’t compete on a mediocre level and expect to get in. And I thought that was a legitimate thing. And my answer was, I have received more awards and honors than any one man could ever expect in a lifetime, regardless of what the profession is. I just attained everything but that, so I certainly didn’t need that; I wasn’t lookin’ forward to it. It wasn’t a desire of mine, or an objective.”
Leatherbury learned of his Hall of Fame selection by telephone, and even here sharpens the jocular blade. “Somebody contacted me,” he says, “and I said, ‘I demand a recount.’ ”
He asked Lane to introduce him at the induction ceremony. Assuming Maryland racing colleagues appear as pledged, he thinks he could have 30 guests.
Beyond the audacious ledger, Lane says, Leatherbury furnishes enough margin notes to provide ample introductory fodder. “He’s ultra-consistent,” Lane says. “He has a routine for, like, everything in his life. And he has an energy and a playfulness about him that’s just amazing for a man 82 years old.”
A typical trainer might construe Hall of Fame induction the crowning glory, the symbolic cloaking of a 57-year mantle studded with two national victory titles (322 in 1977, 304 in ’78), 52 Laurel/Pimlico training titles, more than a dozen graded stakes winners and the rare feat of turning a claimer, Taking Risks, into a Grade 1 conqueror. Leatherbury considers the practical application with antiseptic candor.
“It won’t get me any owners; I’m too old,” he says. “ Nobody’s gonna come in the game and get an 82-year-old trainer. The average young guy is gonna get some up-and-coming young trainer that he can grow with. No, I’m dead on that part.”
“It’ll end up costin’ me money: I gotta pay for my room up there. They don’t give you a room.”
“The first time I was leadin’ trainer in the country, the HBPA sent me and my wife to Los Angeles, paid my way there, paid my way back, gave me a thing in one of the big hotels. My wife dances with Cary Grant, dances with John Forsythe. John Forsythe came up to me and said, ‘You had a nice acceptance speech. You did a very good job.’ And I was nervous as hell. But I don’t get nervous anymore.”
“Well, maybe when I see the red and blue lights flashin’ behind me. . . I haven’t had a ticket in a long, long time. The last couple times, I’ve just got warnings. They see an old man in there, and they really feel sorry for me. It’s the truth.
“One time I was gettin’ a ticket, and I was in court. And before it started, the judge said, ‘I don’t know how many of you are familiar with horse racing, but we have a very famous person in the court today.’ So naturally, he eased up my [penalty]. Didn’t let me off, but he eased it up.”
At the moment, he’s back in the passing lane on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway headed south, left hand on the wheel, cellphone to his right ear, Jersey barrier to his left. He ends the phone conversation and begins a monologue on his horse-training adventure that took root in 1959, before Dale Capuano or Scott Lake or Jamie Ness or Hugh McMahon drew a breath.
He had the pedigree for it by title and aim as the only child of Evelyn King and Taylor Leatherbury, a Thoroughbred owner, trainer and breeder. Dad gave young King his first racetrack exposures at Marlboro and Bowie, each about a 20-minute drive from their farm in West River, Md.
“I had no dreams,” he says of his horse-training outset. “All I wanted to do was exist. When I first started out, I wasn’t married; I had no responsibilities. I had a joke about it: All I wanted was a hundred-dollar bill in my pocket and a Cadillac convertible. I never did get the Cadillac convertible.
“I had a college degree [in business administration from University of Maryland], and I knew I could always get some job. I wasn’t after makin’ money; I just wanted to do somethin’ I enjoyed. I figured it this way: If I get a job somewhere five days a week, then Saturdays I’m gonna be out at the track anyway. And sure I’d make more money that way, but I wouldn’t be where I wanted to be. In the daytime, I like to bet, figure it out, handicap. And I was content just to get by with expenses and bein’ able to feed myself and afford a place to stay. That was my approach.”
Up ahead, crawling cars clog both lanes. Leatherbury acknowledges the slowdown without emotion, slows his approach.
His first decade in the business showed sure and steady growth–10 wins his debut season of 1959, 44 in ’66, 60 in ’69. Then the blastoff starting 1971: 91 wins, 130, 176, 222, 312 and 365 before his nation-leading tallies.
The surge, he says, rode necessity: To challenge Bud Delp and Dick Dutrow and John Tammaro, he had to claim to survive.
“Didn’t even know what claiming was when I first started out,” he says. “My father would buy a couple yearlings every year, and he always had some [homebreds]. And some of his friends were doin’ the same thing, and then I got to train for them. And it wasn’t until I got in with some people that wanted some action, and the best way to get action was to claim.
“But it really took off with the competition from Bud Delp–he was the big supermarket trainer as they called him–and Dutrow and Tammaro. At that stage, in order to compete, you had to have the horses to compete with ’em. So that’s when I really got into claimin’. . . The object was to become leading trainer.”
Trainer John Hartsell Jr., then a student and star pitcher at Northwood High in Silver Spring, Md., says he’d spend Saturday afternoons at Bowie Race Course in the 1970s. More than the spectacle compelled him.
“I’d sneak out there with the older guys,” he says. “They’d be drinking beer and having a good time; I’d have my head in the Racing Form. And there it was–King Leatherbury. I was struck by the name.
“He was my idol; he still is. This is why I got into the horse-racing business. He was my inspiration. I’m like, how cool would it to be to do that for a living?”
Leatherbury guides the Lexus off the B-W Parkway, onto
Rt. 198 west, explaining his genesis with the handicapping sheets, first Len Ragozin’s, then Jerry Brown’s.
“Len Ragozin called me up. He said, ‘You don’t know me, I don’t know you, but I know enough to see when you get a horse, it improves. That’s the kind of trainer I want.’ He says, ‘I’m gonna pick the horses out. I’ll send the money out. You claim the horses. I’ll tell you where to run ’em back. So you don’t have to worry about claimin’ a bad horse; it’s my fault if I do. So, very first horse he calls me. Put the claim in. Claim it. Run it back; it wins. He called a couple days later. Claimed the horse. Run him back; he wins. I don’t know if it happened two, three or four times in a row; I can’t remember. But it happened.
“I’m goin’, ‘Who is this guy? Good God, he’s a genius.’ And, of course, he had the numbers. He’d claim a horse for $10,000, and he’d even say, ‘I’m gonna go up to New York and win for $25,000.’ And he would. But you can’t find that deviation now like you could then, because people have wised up.”
Leatherbury says he so trusted the sheet numbers that he would make an entire day’s claims before the first race.
“Some people like to look at a horse before they claim it, and that’s fine,” he says. “But unless the horse is a first-time starter, and you wanna make sure he isn’t a runt or real crooked, I don’t really see the need.”
Right on Whiskey Bottom Road, left onto the Laurel Park access road, Leatherbury reveals that he chose his nom de course for twin sons Taylor and Todd. Hence the name: The Jim Stable.
“When the boys were toddlers, they watched Sesame Street,” he says. “Sesame Street had these two characters, Jim, and the other might have been Buddy. The other one would always ask: ‘Hey, Jim. How do you do this?’ ‘Hey, Jim, what follows 98?’ But then Todd started callin’ Taylor Jim, Taylor started callin’ Todd Jim, and then, when there was a bunch of kids from the neighborhood in the room playin’ or out in the yard, they would call Taylor and Todd Jim. So I said, ‘My God, that’s all I hear: Jim this, Jim that. So I just named it The Jim Stable.”
Back in the simulcast room with his pals, Leatherbury checks the bets he’d made earlier for Belmont Park and Monmouth. He peels through the stack of tickets, finds a good $30 win bet on a 9-1 shot and a $5 exacta that returned $73.40 for $2. Worth about $500, they appear his only cashers.
Kathy the waitress stops to his side. “Soup today? Chicken noodle.”
“Yeah,” Leatherbury says, tone upbeat. “And some good bread.”
Soon there comes an unexpected side. Leatherbury, the steely, bottom-line trainer offers a helping of . . . sentimentality.
He reveals that he once made an emotional claim, a take-back of the wondrous old gray-white gelding he’d had and lost, had and lost. Port Conway Lane, Leatherbury’s young stakes winner turned Thoroughbred perennial, was nuzzling toward 50 victories, and Leatherbury sought to lay the milestone.
Port Conway Lane soldiered through 242 starts in 13 seasons, won most of his 52 races for Leatherbury and provided enough narrative mirth to keep the tales wagging for decades.
William T. Stokes, a friend of Leatherbury’s dad, had bought Port Conway Lane for $7,000 at a 1970 Keeneland yearling sale and gave him to King to train. Leatherbury didn’t attend the auction, which matters not to the telling.
“What comes [into the ring] was this big, gray, good-lookin’ horse,” Leatherbury says. “The horse had had, in his younger days, some kind of injury to his tendon, which looked like a deformity. So [John] Tammaro, he’s so aware of everything. He knew my owners . . . and he liked to talk, and he always had an audience because he could make stories, and they sounded good. And he said, ‘One of Leatherbury’s owners just bought a yearling with a bowed tendon.’ Well, this is Port Conway Lane. He never even bucked shins; he never had any problems.”
Port Conway Lane ran so well so long that CBS’s Charles Kuralt paid him television homage. Leatherbury reaches for the bread, a grilled club roll half.
“When Sunday Morning did that show on him, Marvin Kuhn had just claimed him from me, and I claimed him back,” he says. “They interviewed Marvin. And I always told Marvin, ‘See what I did for you–I got you on national television.’ ”
Beyond Port Conway Lane, Leatherbury shows a softness for Ah Day (Malibu Moon—Endette, by Thirty Eight Paces), his graded stakes-winning homebred who fought through physical strife to win 14 races and more than $900,000.
Here again, Leatherbury sheds his hard-boiled mantra. “Ah Day’s gonna be a lead pony, you know,” he says, voice lilting. “So he’ll be back over there listenin’ to the bugle.”
A spoonful of soup rises, and a question: Have we misread King Leatherbury all these years? Did we misinterpret his assertion that he entered the sport not for a love of the horse, per se, but for horse racing? Did we therefore harden his heart unfairly?
“I love animals,” he says. “Dogs, I think, are the greatest animals on earth.”
He favors horses too, but how emotionally close, he asks, can one get to a creature that spends so much time in a stall?
This animal fondness might be viewed, however comically, outside Leatherbury’s Mitchellville, Md., home, where he’s apparently adopted what he calls buzzards?–more likely turkey vultures.
He dubbed the three Moe, Larry and Curly.
“It’s one of those things–if you don’t know ’em, you don’t like ’em,” he says. “They showed up one day, and we fed ’em. They’ll literally eat out of my hands. If you filmed the thing, you’d probably think I was crazy.”
For food, Leatherbury says he makes trips to Sam’s Club for pork loin ($1.70 a pound, the cheapest around), and adds this “damnedest” footnote: The family cats gladly coexist with them.
Leatherbury says he lays out raw eggs and wet and dry dog food for foxes that prowl the property at night, and marvels, at the pond beyond the barn, how the hungry fish gather, mouths agape, at his arrival.
Just when you start to think the guy’s become St. Francis of Assisi, King T. Leatherbury returns. Conversation shifting to the future, Leatherbury again steers a rational analysis.
He has 14 horses in Barn 1 at Laurel Park, he says, six of which he owns. (Assistant Thorpe snickers at the figure, calls 18 more accurate. “Make that 17,” Thorpe says. “We sent one home today.”) But the flimsy-margin point conveys.
“If it wasn’t for Ben’s Cat, I’d be not able to pay the vet bills,” Leatherbury says. “So I’ve got to do something. When it comes to a point of costin’ me money to stay in the business, do you go to your savings? Like, most owners, the game’s gonna cost ’em money. So a guy’s gonna have a stable of horses and say, ‘I’m willing to lose $30,000 a year.’ I’m not gonna do that. So when it comes to a point where it’s costin’ me more than I bring in . . . ”
The sentence vanishes, dangling the notion that Leatherbury, ever driven, might actually put it in park. The measured, objective, calculated Hall of Fame trainer has reengaged his profit-minded manifesto, his dedicated aim for return on investment.
But might Leatherbury’s investment supersede the monetary? What’s his spiritual break-even point? How long might it take him to quantify his stake in a business he so fearlessly, skillfully, unapologetically remastered?
“Out of racing,” he says, “I’m not King Leatherbury anymore.”