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King Leatherbury, filly Xtra Heat named to horse racing Hall of Fame

King Leatherbury, trainer of Xtra Heat, talks about his induction into the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame. (Childs Walker/Baltimore Sun)

For King Leatherbury, handicapping was always the essence of thoroughbred racing.

Let other horsemen wax poetic about the connection between man and animal. Leatherbury loved horses as a Maryland kid coming up at the knee of his father, a small-time breeder and owner who took him to races in Upper Marlboro. But what he really loved was the art (or perhaps science) of picking underappreciated winners.

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He studied handicapping while attending the University of Maryland and throughout a two-year Army stint. He's studying it to this day as an 82-year-old trainer with 6,454 wins under his belt, fourth most in history.

On Monday, Leatherbury's acumen gained him a place in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

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"Even on just a cheap claimer, I get a thrill out of winning," he said, reflecting on a career that began in 1958 and continues with current star Ben's Cat. "That's basically what I'm known for. It's just added up over the years."

He'll be joined in this year's class by Xtra Heat, who trained in Laurel and earned $2.39 million on the strength of 26 victories. All that after the Kentucky-bred filly was purchased for $5,000 as a 2-year-old at the annual spring auction in Timonium.

Jockey Chris Antley, who died in 2000, will also be inducted at the ceremony in August along with Thoroughbred Lava Man. Antley rode his first winner at Pimlico Race Course in 1983 and won the 1999 Preakness aboard Charismatic.

"I never thought in my life, and I've been buying horses for a long time, that I'd ever have a horse of that quality," said Xtra Heat's co-owner, Baltimore resident Kenneth Taylor. "It's hard to even imagine. Being elected to the Hall of Fame is as big as it gets."

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Xtra Heat won the Eclipse Award for best 3-year-old filly in 2001 and won 10 of 11 races she started in Maryland, where she trained throughout her active career. The former sprinter now lives in Kentucky.

Taylor remembered how little he and his two co-owners expected from her when they bought her at Timonium. "Let's just be clear," Taylor said. "I had no clue. … But she was a monster."

Rather than aspire to a Triple Crown or move his operation to a larger media market in California or New York, Leatherbury happily chased victories in Maryland for more than five decades. He's trained a few big winners, but his real gift is finding undervalued horses and squeezing profitable runs out of them year after year.

Because he chose a more modest stage, Leatherbury waited longer to enter the Hall of Fame than trainers with many fewer wins.

"It's a legitimate complaint," he said in assessing his career. "A lot of people believe that to be at the top, you have to compete with the very top all year long. And of course, that's not me."

Though he actually saddled his first winner at Florida's Sunshine Park in 1959, Leatherbury joked that a turf writer once deemed him "as Maryland as crab cakes."

Nonetheless, he was among the winningest trainers in North America for a time, ranking in the top three in victories every year from 1975 to 1980. He remembered those as glorious years, when he was fueled by rivalries with fellow Hall of Fame trainer Grover "Bud" Delp and their contemporaries Dickie Dutrow and John Tammaro.

Leatherbury kept winning in the 1980s and 1990s, but as many of the owners he worked with left the business or died, his stable diminished to just eight horses.

His assistant trainer, Avon Thorpe, said Leatherbury didn't lose his mellow disposition during those leaner years.

"He just lets it come and go," said Thorpe, who started as a hot walker for Leatherbury more than 20 years ago. "But he's got a talent not too many people have."

He said his boss is getting a huge kick out of the Hall of Fame election, even if Leatherbury is more apt to downplay his success.

In 2010, Ben's Cat charged onto the Maryland scene, overcoming a pelvic injury suffered as a juvenile to give Leatherbury a valedictory run the trainer never anticipated.

Still running at age 9, Ben's Cat has won 28 races and accrued more than $2 million in purse winnings, simultaneously pumping money back into Leatherbury's training operation.

"He's an amazing horse," Leatherbury said. "He's lasted so long, and he's just as good as ever, I think. No question about him being the one who kept my name up in lights, so to speak."

Horse and horseman are going strong despite their advanced years.

"I'm just fortunate to be around this long and last this long," Leatherbury said. "Because most of the people I started out with are no longer here."

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