Leatherbury: A breed apart

Leatherbury: A breed apart
King T. Leatherbury, 70, who began training horses in Florida in 1959, gets up close and personal with Cherokee Sunrise, one of the 25 horses he still trains. (Sun photo by Nanine Hartzenbusch)
First of three parts

King T. Leatherbury is the nation's third-winningest horse trainer. He has 5,984 victories, according to the Daily Racing Form. The nation's leading thoroughbred horse trainer is Dale Baird, with nearly 8,500 wins.

Leatherbury, a Shady Side native, was born on a farm there, where his father raised horses. He entered the sport shortly after graduating from the University of Maryland.

Leatherbury's first victory was in 1959 with Mister L at Sunshine Park in Florida, now Tampa Bay Downs. He marked his 5,000th victory in May 1993.

Leatherbury's career includes 25 training titles at Pimlico Race Course and at Laurel Park. In 1993, he led all Maryland trainers with 144 victories, 152 wins in 1994, 126 victories in 1995 and 117 the next year.

On four occasions, his horses have won five races in one day -- and once, they won six races in one day. In 1994, Leatherbury trained Taking Risks to victories in the William Donald Schaefer, the Baltimore Breeders' Cup and the Jennings Handicap. The horse also won the Maryland Million Classic.

Leatherbury has raced three horses in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico: Indigo Star, which placed fifth in 1978; Thirty-Eight Paces, which placed fourth in 1981; and I Am the Game, which placed fourth in 1985.

Interviewed recently at the Maryland Jockey Club's lounge at Laurel Park, Leatherbury discussed a wide range of issues on the sport, including this week's Preakness Stakes.

SunSpot will feature more excerpts on Wednesday and Friday.

Your first victory was in 1959. What was that like?

Back then, it was very exciting to have a horse win.

This is how I relate it: I could never play baseball or football or any kind of real sport -- the average guy can't do that kind of thing. And I can't afford to buy the Washington Redskins.

But you can get involved in horse racing at a much lower cost. You can actually buy a race horse for $5,000. And if that horse wins, it's almost like your son is out there and he's just had a 100-yard dash and won. You get that thrill of it.

Even the bettor can participate, because even though he doesn't own that horse, he has a financial interest in that horse running. If he puts $10 on that horse, and it wins, he's got that going for him.

How has horse racing changed over the years?

Everything changes. I had nothing to do with that. I'm just riding the game. I'm just in the game. I just got in the game and the game changes.

The simulcasting was a huge change, in that we used to only have live racing [at Pimlico]. You came to the races, you sat out there, you watched the horses run, you could only bet right here. Then it evolved into other tracks running their horses.

The television is what did it. Let us televise our races down there, you can bet on our races -- and we'll give you a piece of the action. So it really made sense [for Pimlico to participate].

How many horses do you own now?

I train 20 horses, which is small for me. I used to have a 60-horse stable all the time.

Do you own all of them?

I own some of them, but I train for other people. I'm a public trainer. Anyone who wants a trainer can hire me as any other trainer in Maryland. We're all public trainers. A lot of us will get involved in owning horses because either we like it or we just happen to see a horse that we like and we don't want to pass it up.

What kind of bets do you place on horses?

My main bet each day is the "Pick 4." That's the most valued, because there's only a 14 percent take out of the pot. It's a special reduced rate that the tracks offer [to attract bettors].

How much money is taken out?

"Win," "place" and "show" are 18 percent. The "Daily Double" and "Exacta" are 21 percent; "Pick 4" is only 14 percent; "Trifectas," "Pick 3" and "Supers" are -- look at that -- almost 26 percent.

This is what is taken out by the state, the tracks …?

By everybody, the rest is paid back. Parimutuel wagering is where everybody throws their money into a pool, so everybody bets.

Say $20,000 is bet in this pool. The take comes out of that, and the remaining amount is paid off to the holders of the winning tickets.

Essentially, the bettors are betting against …?

Each other. And the track has no interest in who wins; they're going to get theirs. They're going to pay out the same exact amount. Whether a long shot wins, they're going to pay out the same amount -- only a few people will get it -- therefore, the prices will be much better.

You handicap horses. What's that?

When you're handicapping, you're figuring out the distance, the time, the weight and the jockey -- all this stuff is incorporated when you handicap a race. This makes our game so much better than other forms of gambling -- because you participate in figuring out what's going to happen.

You can't figure out what's going to happen in a crap game; the dice goes around like a ping-pong ball. A roulette wheel turns around and lands on one number.

In this game, you actually say: "Hey, we know one thing: We don't know who's going to win this race for sure, but we know one of these horses is going to win. Let's figure out which one it will be."

So, I might look at some material, and you might look at it -- and we'll come up with different things. This is when you put your money where your mouth is. Whoever's right goes up and collects the money; the other guy loses.

Why do you like to handicap?

It's almost like you're working at a puzzle -- and that's what makes our game so exciting. The bettor gets the chance to analyze, and he gets a feeling of satisfaction when he picks a winner.

Whether his analysis turns out right or wrong, what's in his mind is: "Damn, I figured that damn thing out. I knew that one was going to win." I go up there and pick up my money. And he's tickled, not only financially, but he is tickled and satisfied mentally in that he has beaten the game.

But how is playing the horses different from playing slot machines?

You have no control over [slots].

Of course, [with horses] you don't have control over the outcome, but you do have control over who you want to wager on.

Couldn't you say the same thing for putting a quarter in a particular slot machine?

No. You see somebody sitting [at a machine] and lose and lose and lose. Then he walks away. And -- and I've done this myself -- say, "Damn, that machine's due now to pay off." It goes through a cycle; it has to pay off a certain percentage, so you might say: "Let me get on this machine now. It's going to get hot." You can figure out something like that.

So how is gambling on horses different?

Our game has factors involved: the weight of the horse, who's the jockey, how much weight he's carrying, whether the horse is running on a dirt track or a grass track. These are all statistics we're going with.

When you're handicapping, we're going by past performances. That's all. You're going by what the horse has done in the past. Everybody's handicapping off the horse's previous performance.

But it's still gambling?

Sociologists say 50 percent of the people like to gamble, 50 percent don't. It has nothing to do with your economic status, your education -- anything -- how you were raised, doesn't matter. Either you enjoy it or you don't like it, that's all. And you can have a million dollars, and you don't want to bet $1 on anything.

On the other hand, you could be perfectly a pauper -- and if you get a hold of $2, you'd love to bet it on something.

I just happen to be a gambler. All these people around here are gamblers. I've never found anything wrong with gamblers. I've associated with them my whole life. I've been in the gambling industry my whole life.

And, like I say, if you don't like to gamble, don't gamble. That's all.

Sociologists also say gambling can become addictive ...?

That's crap. Believe me, I get to losing -- and there's no bigger gambler than I am -- but if I get to losing, and I get sour on it, I don't have to bet. I'll go for days and days and not make a bet. If you get to losing, you'll feel like a fool, losing all the time.

But I enjoy it, and the people I know enjoy it. It's excitement. And the people who are here betting can afford it. It's entertainment, it's excitement.

And, you're using your mind. You're not just sitting in front of the television. You're active, using your brain -- doing the handicapping and figuring things out. This is good for your brain.

Most of your victories have come in "claiming races." What are those?

They are designed for each horse to have its own category, so they can race against their own kind. That's it, in a nutshell. They race against their own kind because of the value that's put on a race. All horses have different value.

How does it work?

Before the race runs, any horse that's entered in a claiming race can be purchased for that price. Now, why would they do that? Not for people to buy and sell horses, but to make sure all the horses are of the same value.

If I've got a horse worth $20,000 and you've got a horse only worth $10,000, mine's is going to beat yours every time. I've got a better horse.

But if you put a $10,000 claiming price on that race, I'm not going to sell my $20,000 horse for $10,000. I'd be a fool to do that, because somebody would claim him -- and I'm not going to take any commodity that's worth $20,000 and sell it for $10,000, so I'm going to leave that race alone.

You enter your $10,000 horse, along with maybe 8 others, who put their horses worth 10,000. Then, you've got all evenly matched horses.

It's like if the 'Skins played some high school team. There's no comparison; the score would be 100 to nothing. But when they play another pro team, either one could win or lose.

How much can these races be claimed for?

You have races ranging from $5,000 to $6,500 -- on up to $30,000 or $40,000. That enables a person -- and you would talk it over with the trainer; basically, the trainer would decide it -- to decide where they're going to run this horse.

If you run it too cheap, somebody might claim it. You don't want that. If you run it too high, you're going to meet better horses, and your horse is never going to win. So you have to get somewhere in the middle, where your horse can be competitive.

Who sets the claiming price, the trainer?

Every day you enter, you look through [a "Condition Book" put out by individual racetracks] and ask yourself, "Which horse do I have?" They have to fit other conditions -- the age or sex.

So, the claiming could run the gamut? The trainer could have a wide range of horses in his own stable for certain races?

Yes. Of course.

Claiming is considered the bread-and-butter of the horseracing industry, right?

Yes, because it's cheaper, assuming there's good horses.

And, what about the thoroughbreds that run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness …?

They're awesome. They're the very best in the country. They are the champions of the country. You'll go through 1,000 horses to get one like that, to run in a race like that.

But you've done it?

I've done it, but I don't want to put my money up [now] to try to get those kinds of horses, and I don't have clients who will put that kind of money up.

[D.] Wayne Lukas [the nation's No. 4 trainer] has clients who will go down to Kentucky and spend a million dollars for yearlings, a horse that's never had a saddle on him.

You don't know what he'll do. He might be worth a nickel or could be worth $10 million.

Wednesday: Following the money and Maryland's slots debate.