Leatherbury feels like a Million 5,000 wins can't dull trainer's enthusiasm

September 25, 1993|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Staff Writer

Maryland's King Leatherbury is one of only three thoroughbred trainers to saddle 5,000 winners, so his enthusiasm for the post-race ceremony is not what it once was.

"I very seldom go down [to the winner's circle] and get my picture taken any more," Leatherbury said yesterday. "But it was different when I won a Maryland Million race. It was Maryland, and I got pumped up for it."

Such is the atmosphere that will surround the eighth annual Maryland Million program Oct. 9 at Laurel Race Course, a happening that Pimlico-Laurel president Joe De Francis labeled "the brightest success story the industry has enjoyed over the last eight years."

Their comments came yesterday at the Inner Harbor, where Maryland Million fervor kicked off with an informal news conference before a lunchtime audience at the amphitheater.

"When this first started, it was such an exciting idea I wondered why nobody had thought of it sooner," Leatherbury said. "It was a Breeders' Cup concept made just for Maryland -- on a smaller scale. It was so much better than what we normally ran."

The brainchild of Jim McKay, the Maryland Million has developed into "the second most important racing event [to the Preakness] have here," De Francis said. "And it happened in just eight years. It took the Preakness 118 to get to where it is."

Leatherbury remembers when Maryland horsemen ran for $1,000 purses. The Million has eight races worth at least $100,000, all with corporate sponsors.

"That first time I won, it just hit me that this really was something," he said. "I don't know what it is to win a Kentucky Derby, but I certainly got that kind of thrill that day."

Leatherbury has three Million victories, the first two coming in 1987 with Ms. Rutledge in the Distaff Handicap and Thirty Eight Go Go in the Lassie.

The crowd sang Happy Birthday for McKay, who turned 72 yesterday and celebrated by musing on one of the primary loves of his life -- racing.

"I was coming back from the first Breeders' Cup in California when I realized what I had seen wasn't just a day of racing. It was special," McKay said.

"I mentioned to my wife [Margaret] that it would be great to do something like this at home, and she said, 'It's a terrific idea.' So we started moving.

"Some people were saying it was a 'Fulton's Folly' from the first, and when I got to the track [at 10 a.m.], I wondered if they were right. It turned out 21,000 showed up, and we were on our way."

McKay said acquiring sponsors has become tougher because of the state of the economy.

"You're always going to have somebody dropping out because a lot of companies are cutting down on expenses," he said. "It's harder to get sponsors now than in the '80s when they were spending money on everything. But we've been able to work it out every year."

NOTES: The celebrities at the Inner Harbor amphitheater also included jockeys Andrea Seefeldt and Tommy Turner and trainer Billy Boniface, who saddled 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony. The speakers awarded reserved tickets for Maryland Million Day to fans in the crowd who answered trivia questions. . . . The only horse to compete on the first seven Maryland Million cards, In The Curl, will not return. She earned a check in every race she ran, but is now retired at Peace and Plenty Farm near Mount Airy, Md., and is in foal by Smarten. . . . Today's feature, the 29th running of the $100,000 Governor's Cup at 1 1/8 miles over turf, has drawn Awad, upset winner of the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park. He will be a top-heavy favorite if he goes, but may be scratched to await the Maryland Million. Hollywood Handsome, unbeaten on grass, is the probable choice if Awad scratches.

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