Natalie Wales was almost giddy, and the smile on her face came through in her voice.
“He’s a nice guy. He’s super athletic, and he’s gorgeous. He’s Tom Brady.”
Actually, he’s Leather Gloves, the 15-year-old gelding Wales has owned and foxhunted for seven years. Speak with Wales for even a few minutes, and it’s obvious the sleek, seal-brown son of Not For Love is her equine ideal.
“He’s just the most beautiful horse.”
Wales is plenty qualified to dole out such lofty praise. The native of England’s Stratford-upon-Avon grew up foxhunting and eventing. Twenty-two years ago, England was in the processing of banning hunting, so Wales thought it a good time to check out how Americans do it. Planning to give it a year, she settled in the sport’s mecca – Middleburg, Va. – and never left.
Early on, she acquired a horse from veteran steeplechase trainer Dot Smithwick that she wanted to run over timber.
“I thought perhaps I ought to gallop some racehorses because I had not done that,” she said. “So I called Richard Valentine, and he said, ‘Sure, come on over.’ ”
Wales got the experience she needed and more. She met her husband, Valentine’s assistant Laird George, there and the groundwork was laid on the path leading Wales to Leather Gloves.
Fast forward to 2013. Magalen Bryant, long one of steeplechasing’s leading owners, purchased a 5-year-old from Fasig-Tipton’s summer horses of racing age sale for $20,000. Bred in Maryland by Bill Backer, Leather Gloves was out of Mittens, one of the advertising titan’s favorite mares. Like his dam, Leather Gloves was trained by Hamilton Smith, with whom Backer won the Virginia Oaks in 2004 (Art Fan) and 2009 (Blind Date).
Making his debut as a 3-year-old in 2011, Leather Gloves broke his maiden at Colonial Downs in his fifth start. Smith and Backer ran him for $25,000 to $20,000 claiming tags for a time, but he didn’t hit the board again until a second at Laurel Park for $6,500 in December 2012. He rebounded there three weeks later and clinched his second win for the connections.
Given a break until the following May, Leather Gloves made three starts in 2013, finishing second, third and fourth. That July, he went through the sales ring and went steeplechasing for Bryant and Valentine.
His first start over fences came at Charlotte in April 2014; he finished third. What came next was arguably the zenith of the horse’s racing career. Back as a maiden a month later at Fair Hill, Leather Gloves hammered out the win over future Grade 1 hurdle winners All the Way Jose, Choral Society and Balance the Budget. Pulled up in a Saratoga allowance two months later, Leather Gloves missed nearly a year before finishing sixth in his final start – a Monmouth Park allowance in June 2015. After 19 starts, he retired to Virginia hunt country with a record of 3-3-3 and $68,720.
Wales was riding out at Bryant’s Locust Hill Farm when the horse arrived. Shortly thereafter, farm manager Karen Russell asked if Wales might have a use for any of the recent retirees.
“They would rehome horses fairly frequently because Mrs. Bryant had so many of them,” Wales said. “There were always horses coming home to Locust Hill. From Jonathan Sheppard’s . . . Mrs. Bryant had horses with everybody. Eventually these horses were looking for new jobs and new homes. They’d sort of start stacking up and someone would say, ‘Hey, are you interested?’ Karen had offered me a cute little bay horse. I told her I really liked that one, but I had my heart set on Leather Gloves. I just always loved the look of him.”
For the past 15 years, Wales has operated a boarding and training business at Old Denton, just across Zulla Road from Locust Hill in The Plains, Va.
“My clients are a mixed group of some lower-level event people, some foxhunters. I have 14 horses in my barn right now, and entirely too many of them are my own,” she said. “But the hunting and eventing is my thing.”
Wales has also been a staff member at Orange County Hounds for nearly 13 years. She whipped in for 10 years until a head injury sidelined her with a forced hiatus when she had to hunt from back in the field, as whipping in was considered too risky. She’s back on the job now, with Leather Gloves leading her squad of hunters.
“Don’t tell the others, but yeah – he kind of is my favorite horse to hunt. Like I said, he’s Tom Brady. He’s the star quarterback, the one you save for the tough days and bigger country. You don’t have to think, you just point, shoot and go and he does his job. And from the first time I jumped him I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat on a horse that jumps this well.’ It took awhile to get him across the creek in the beginning . . . but other than that, he’s been nothing but a star.”
She’s not wrong. Leather Gloves is a showstopper over a fence with his perfect bascule and knees tucked tight to his chin. Together, she and the horse represent the sport with elegance.
“He’s just genuinely a really good boy,” Wales said. “He doesn’t do anything wrong; he’s like a big old Labrador. So sweet and so kind. This time of year, when he’s as fit as he is for hunting, turning him out in the morning can be a little bit of an adventure sometimes. But he’s such a gentleman in everything that he does.”
So here’s the big question – does anyone else get the privilege of hunting Leather Gloves? Surely husband Laird would have the occasional honor, no?
Wales paused a moment before answering with a laugh.
“No one hunts him but me. Every once in awhile, Laird will hunt one of mine, but not him. I’ve never let anyone else hunt Leather Gloves. He’s pretty special.”