Superlatives flowed from King Leatherbury after 1-5 favorite Taking Risks shaved two seconds off the Laurel track record yesterday en route to a 7 1/4 -length victory in the Maryland Million Classic.
After 36 years in the business, with probably more than 20,000 horses passing through his barn, Maryland's winningest trainer described the 4-year-old gelding as the fastest horse he has trained.
Better than his 1985 Preakness starter I Am The Game. Better than his double New York stakes winner Thirty Eight Paces.
"He's incredible. But if you deal in claiming all the horses that I do, the percentages work in your favor," Leatherbury said. "Sooner or later, you're bound to come up with a horse like this, although he's exceeded all my expectations. I try to acquire horses when they're starting to do good, and then I simply ride their wave.
"Saying Taking Risks is the fastest is something I don't like to do. It's a little like comparing Joe Louis to Cassius Clay. But this horse has got to be the best I've ever trained."
Snared from the claiming ranks for $20,000 less than a year ago, Taking Risks duplicated his Grade I victory in the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park six weeks ago.
He settled in third, about four lengths off his pace-setting stablemate, Ameri Valay, in the early going and then extended his strong, graceful stride in the stretch, winning by as much as he pleased and never once touched by jockey Mark Johnston's whip.
The horse's final time for 1 3/16 miles, the Preakness distance being run at Laurel, was 1 minute, 54 3/5 seconds, two seconds faster than the mark set in 1988 by Lady Doswell. The 1 3/16-mile route is seldom run at Laurel. But by way of comparison, Taking Risks' time was faster than the last three runnings of the Preakness and the Pimlico Special, although it was more than two seconds slower than the Pimlico mark of 1:52 2/5 set by Farma Way in the 1991 Special.
Leatherbury is concerned it was a little too swift, especially since he plans on running Taking Risks in the Grade I $500,000 Meadowlands Cup in 13 days.
"I hope it didn't take too much out of him," Leatherbury said.
Frugal Doc, whom Leatherbury had considered claiming for $25,000 earlier in the summer, finished second, 2 1/4 lengths over Leatherbury-trained Super Memory.
The finish marked a Classic sweep for the offspring of the stallions of Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City. Taking Risks is sired by Two Punch, Maryland's leading stallion. Frugal Doc is a son of Baederwood, and Super Memory is sired by Waquoit.
Other Northview stallions Caveat and Smarten also sired two other Million winners, Warning Glance and Prenup, respectively, and an extra sweetener was added when about 1,000 miles away, Soul Of The Matter, a son of Northview stallion Private Terms, won the $750,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.
Taking Risks is owned by the Lakeville Stable of Baird Brittingham and Daniel Lufkin. The horse represents Brittingham's second career in racing. From 1968 to 1982, Brittingham was president and chief executive officer of Delaware Park and raced such stakes winners as Mitey Prince and Shark's Jaws. After Delaware was sold to new owners, Brittingham took time off from racing during the 1980s.
"Then after a dear friend of mine died, I needed something to do to occupy my time," he said. "That's when I started a claiming stable."
His eventual partner in the Lakeville operation became Daniel Lufkin. Brittingham and Lufkin were classmates at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. "That's how we derived the name of stable," he said.
Brittingham said, "No, no, no," when asked if he would consider supplementing Taking Risks to the Nov. 5 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
Leatherbury had flirted with the idea of running Taking Risks in the inaugural Kentucky Cup at Turfway Park last week instead of the Million. That race was won by Preakness winner Tabasco Cat.
"I think we would have probably won the race," Leatherbury said. "But we would have looked like fools if we had gone because the horse would have had to carry so much weight and that would have hurt him later in handicaps."
Leatherbury, a Maryland Million board member, said Jim McKay, the race program's founder, also questioned Leatherbury's plan about going to Kentucky. "He told friends, 'I thought King was a Marylander all the way,' " Leatherbury said.
Leatherbury ran eight horses on yesterday's card, but only Taking Risks and Super Memory finished in the money.
Charlie Hadry compiled the best record, winning two Maryland Million races, with Paddy's Landing in a $50,000 Handicap and with Warning Glance in the $100,000 Turf.
Both horses were ridden by Mike Smith, the nation's leading jockey,who is now six stakes wins away from breaking his 1993 record.
"When I came down here, Charlie told me I had two great shots to win, and maybe a third," Smith said. "It worked out that way, so I'm glad I was invited."