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.
That 49 percent return on investment, which ranged from a high of 72.1 percent in 1981 to a low of 8.8 percent in 1984, would make most investment bankers blush.
"It's tremendous. You can't say too much about that guy," said Robert Lawrence, an economist at the University of Louisville who headed the study of Mr. Leatherbury.
The figures are even more remarkable considering that three-quarters of racehorses fail to earn even $10,000 a year in purses, the minimum it takes to feed and train them, Mr. Lawrence said.
"He likes the action and he wants to buy horses where you can run and run and run, and the claiming races are the ranks where you get that," Mr. Lawrence said.
Not in the spotlight
Mr. Leatherbury has run in big races. His Kentucky Derby entrant finished last in 1985, and he has had two fourth- and one fifth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes. But it's hardly his, or Maryland's, mainstay. Because of their costs, well-bred stakes runners generally are raced in New York or California, where purses are richer.
For Mr. Leatherbury, the money available in the workaday world of claimers is irresistible, despite the derision it draws from star-struck competitors. About two-thirds of American races are
claimers, and the math can be impressive. Mr. Leatherbury claimed 3-year-old Mom's Stitch for $14,500 in July. The next month, the filly won a $26,600 purse race, and last week she won $13,500.
Leatherbury bills the owner for expenses and gets 10 percent of the purse (or 57 percent if he owns the horse). Over his career, Mr. Leatherbury has earned $37.3 million in purses through 1994, according to statistics kept by the Daily Racing Form. Of that, he would have gotten at least $3.7 million.
$2.6 million, of which he should have gotten about $300,000. From this, he pays the costs of his breeding operation.
He employs 35 workers, mostly tending to the 60 horses he stables at Laurel and Pimlico.
He drives a silver Lexus and has a 200-acre breeding farm in West River and 5-acre home in Mitchellville that he shares with his wife, Linda. His twin sons are grown and pursuing careers in comedy on the West Coast.
"I don't have a boat or a plane. This is my life. This is what I do," said Mr. Leatherbury, whose unusual first name was his mother's maiden name. When not brokering horses, he is playing them at the betting window, often wagering more than $100 at a time.
Mr. Leatherbury tops the state's trainers in wins so often that the annual race is viewed as a competition between Mr. Leatherbury and Everybody Else. From his first win at Florida's Sunshine Park 1959 through last year, he had saddled horses in 26,065 races, winning one out of five and finishing in the money 49 percent of the time.
Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said Mr. Leatherbury is the nation's claiming race champion. "It's a pretty sophisticated game. It's a game within a game, and nobody plays it better than King," Mr. Capps said.
"To do what he is doing takes real savvy and attention to detail. He is in the racing business, not the training business."