One man's claim to fame Top trainer: Defying horse racing tradition, Maryland's King Leatherbury specializes in less-heralded claiming races, and does it better than anyone else.


Minutes before the fourth race at Laurel Park, as other thoroughbred trainers are saddling horses or pacing anxiously in the backstretch, King Leatherbury is at his regular table in the back of the members-only Sky Suite club.

From this unlikely perch, several flights above the track, the third-winningest trainer in American history spends his afternoons watching races on the club's large-screen television. He deciphers computer reports and sips beers while gleefully defying some of the most hallowed traditions in racing.

Mr. Leatherbury, who has five horses running on tomorrow's Maryland Million card, has won more than anyone else in the state's 300 years of racing. But he has done it with a style more like a Wall Street financier than a mud-encrusted horseman.

"I have paid my dues and worked with my own horses and rubbed them and walked them and all that. Now, I'm in a position where I don't have to do that," said Mr. Leatherbury, 62, who draws equally on his many years in the stables and his University of Maryland business degree.

While other trainers report to the backstretch at sunrise, Mr. Leatherbury, with a business suit and short-cropped hair, starts the day in his home office at about 8 a.m. He works phones, not stopwatches, and studies computerized past-performance reports, not feeding schedules. Despite amassing 5,654 wins through the start of this year, he rarely attends the winner's circle ceremonies.

"The horse is a magnificent animal, but he is a tool. We are playing a game with him, and it is an expendable thing. They will only last so long," he said. "I like the game of horse racing better than the horse itself."

A claiming specialist

He's hardly a household name, in part because he specializes in the races that attract the least amount of attention. Mr. Leatherbury is the nation's undisputed grandmaster of claiming races, the gritty, unglamorous undercard for better-regarded stakes and allowance races.

Despite its lack of prestige, a claiming race offers something unique: A buyer can walk away with any horse in the field by dropping a check for the preset claiming price in a box before the race.

Mr. Leatherbury preaches that this is easier and more profitable than buying untested horses at auction or breeding them. Newborns take more than a year to develop, and most don't succeed on the track. By contrast, most claimed horses have records, can run right away and, if they prove disappointing, can be resold at a loss in a lower-level race in 30 days.

Because his operation almost single-handedly fills some race cards, racing people in Maryland are thankful for Mr. Leatherbury. But some breeders get angry because he claims so many horses away from them, including some in which they have invested years. Others find his number-crunching a poor substitute for raising a stakes winner from a gangly foal.

"In my opinion, it's a lot more fun for us and rewarding to breed your own horse," said David Hayden, a Maryland-based adman and part-time horse breeder. "To have a horse you bred win is very gratifying. To claim someone else's doesn't seem as fun."

Mr. Leatherbury doesn't attract horse owners desperately seeking Kentucky Derby roses. In fact, most of his owners come to him with money, not horses, and let him suggest buys like a broker recommends stock.

"Every one of these guys has his own system. He's been around this all his life. He knows horses. He is smart," said Earl Skinner, an owner with three horses under Mr. Leatherbury's care.

Mr. Leatherbury relies heavily on a pair of statistical services that sell tip sheets for $25 each a day. He uses this data to assign his horses to the right races, which can carry claiming prices of $4,000 to $50,000. The price acts as an equalizer, pushing

higher-quality horses to more expensive races. Trainers seek a level low enough that their horses can win, but high enough that they are unlikely to get claimed by someone else.

"The word 'horse trainer' is really a misnomer," Mr. Leatherbury said. "It's not like an animal trainer in a circus, where you train them to stand on their rear legs."

He lets two assistant trainers clomp around the stables. Mr. Leatherbury figures he actually sees only about 20 percent of the animals under his care, and keeps them for an average of less than a year.

He says he has more in common with a boxing manager who signs up his fighter with opponents who can be beat, but will put up a crowd-pleasing fight.

"Looking at horses is immaterial. What am I going to see? I don't have X-ray eyes. . . . A lot of trainers will walk out with a stopwatch just to look good," he said.

Academics at the University of Louisville's equine studies program were so intrigued with Mr. Leatherbury's success that they sent a student in 1992 to sift through 15 years of the trainer's meticulous records. The results: Horse owners

employing Mr. Leatherbury made, on average, $1.49 a year for every dollar they invested.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.