It's a frigid day at Laurel Park, and inside the Kelso Club, King T. Leatherbury is just finishing a hot bowl of vegetable soup. Racing charts and programs are spread around the table in front of him and the simulcasting televisions are busy on the wall ahead.
King T. Leatherbury. What a great name for a horse trainer.
He smiles as his visitor runs down a list of famous kings - Sky King, the star of a 1950s television show; Elvis, the king of rock 'n' roll; Richard Petty, the king of stock car racing; and King Syrup, a honey-colored table syrup that came in a can.
"Yeah," he deadpanned, "and people name their dogs King, too."
This King is no dog.
Seventy-two years ago, Leatherbury's mother gave her newborn son his name. King was her last name, and so she passed on her family heritage. Since then, Leatherbury has been working on his own legacy, and this year he has seen a rekindling of the success he enjoyed nearly 30 years ago, when he was the leading trainer in the country.
In May, he reminded everyone by fielding his fourth career Preakness entry, Malibu Moonshine. This fall, he returned to the ranks of the top 10 trainers at Laurel Park, in seventh place with 15 wins, 11 seconds and 11 thirds. And over the entire year, he has won 42 times in 192 starts for a .219 winning percentage, a major improvement over last year's .125.
"He's the King," said the Laurel meet's leading trainer, Dale Capuano, whose horses won 23 times in 128 starts. "Long live the King. He might have had a couple bad years, but he's very tough. I'm happy for him. It's apparent the game has not passed him by."
Leatherbury is long on experience and understands the game runs in cycles. But, even so, he has spent some time thinking about why success stopped coming his way.
"The question is not how I got to the top," he said. "I know how I got there - there were years when I was clicking and rolling. The question is: Why did I fall?"
And he did fall. From a one-year high of 365 winners - "I like to say it was one win a day," Leatherbury said, smiling, "but it was a leap year" - to a low of 37. He said those big winning numbers came in 1976, "but the worst year, it was disgraceful. I don't remember what year that was. I don't want to remember."
It was a painful time. He was going for career win 6,000 in 2003, the year of 37 wins, and it took him some time. He went 0-for-26 at Pimlico before finally getting it done.
Trainers who have watched him from near and far for decades have drawn their own conclusions.
"I don't think age has anything to do with it," said Capuano. "Racing just goes in cycles. It's obvious now that whatever he is doing is working."
"I've seen him and watched him for 30 years," trainer Robin Graham said. "He's doing the same things he's always done, but I think he just lost interest for a while and now he's back."
Leatherbury said he became complacent.
"When I was rolling really good," he said, "I just took things for granted and maybe didn't buckle down the way I should have. When things were rolling, maybe I got a little negligent. And maybe I protected my horses a little too much so they wouldn't get claimed away. But this is the thing I do. I wouldn't be King Leatherbury. I didn't lose interest, but other people see things and draw conclusions."
These days, he said, he is "managing properly," in a more businesslike manner, being more realistic with where he places his horses, not protecting them as much. And, he said, he has made "a little better claim than in the past." And been able to turn those claimed horses into money earners.
Barbara Stanley and her husband, Charles, have had their horses with Leatherbury for 25 years. She said they have a lot of faith in the veteran trainer's abilities, and she, too, sees a renewed enthusiasm.
"There's no one else who can do what he can do - or what he has done - as far as claiming horses and turning them around and getting the full potential out of a horse," she said. "I think he's gotten more hands-on again. ... He's excited about it again. It's what he lives for, there is no doubt about that."
The Stanleys and Baird Brittingham own the bulk of the 24 horses Leatherbury now has in training in his barns at Laurel. They have endured his lean years, and Leatherbury said as long as they supply him horses he'll be in the training business.
"Owners are usually older than their trainers," he said. "There aren't any new, young owners approaching me about training their horses. And a lot of the older ones have gone away. They decide they want to get a boat or their wives get tired of them spending so much time at the races. Wives and boats are a big deterrent to getting horses."
Leatherbury points to his 6,115 victories as his greatest achievement. A competitive man, he sees trainer Jack Van Berg 241 wins ahead of him, in second on the all-time list (Dale Baird is No. 1 with 9,186 victories), and sighs.