In his long career, King Leatherbury has trained scores of horses with moxie and durability.
But none has shown those qualities more consistently than Ameri Valay, a 4 1/4 -length victor yesterday in the $53,750 Walter Haight Handicap at Laurel Park.
"This horse is one in a thousand," Leatherbury said. "Maybe one in 5,000. He's an absolute runner who never hits a low spot, not even in training."
Ameri Valay's score broke a five-race winning streak by favored Tidal Surge, who set some blistering fractions (22 3/5, 46 and 1:10 2/5) in the 1 1/8 -mile test.
Tidal Surge, who had beaten Ameri Valay by a neck and two lengths in their last two meetings, weakened to finish fourth -- behind Mary's Buckaroo and Rugged Bugger.
"I just think it was a matter of 'you can't keep winning all the time,' " said victorious jockey Mark Johnston. "He [Tidal Surge] was due to throw in a bad one."
His modest assessment aside, Johnston gave Ameri Valay a perfect ride, adjudging the pace as extremely brisk and easing off on the back side so as not to wear down his mount.
"I knew I had to take back out of that," said the jockey. "I just said 'see you later.' Then, from the three-eighths pole on, I wasn't worried about Tidal Surge. This horse is a champ."
Ameri Valay finished in stakes-record time of 1:48 1/5 while successfully defending the Haight championship and becoming the first two-time winner of the race.
Leatherbury said Ameri Valay has been victimized by "some weight switches" that gave Tidal Surge an advantage in their recent meetings. "It's about time we beat him."
The change of venue from Pimlico to Laurel may have been another factor. At Laurel last winter, Tidal Surge's speed wasn't holding.
"Maybe there's a difference," said Jeff Carle, Tidal Surge's rider. "About three furlongs out, I had to hit him to get him rolling whereas at Pimlico he was doing it on his own."
'Run' tops De Francis nominees
Eclipse Award winner and defending race champion Cherokee Run heads a list of 37 nominees to the Grade II, $300,000 De Francis Memorial Dash July 15.
The prestigious six-furlong sprint will be featured on ESPN2's "2Day At the Races" that Saturday.
Cherokee Run has been sidelined by injury for much of this year, but has amassed earnings of almost $1.5 million in his career.
Soviet Problem, runner-up to Cherokee Run in the 1994 Breeders' Cup Sprint, is the defending champ of the Grade III Laurel Dash.
Other nominees include Nick Zito-trained Mr. Greely, Comanche Trail, 1994 De Francis runner-up Boom Towner, Canadian King Ruckus, Friendly Lover and In Case.