When it comes to winning races, few trainers have done it better than King Leatherbury. Yet even as the wins and the titles and the awards and the honors keep piling up in a career that has now touched parts of seven decades, the man his friends call ‘Leather’ and admirers reverently address by his first name, Leatherbury takes it all in stride.
Now 82, Leatherbury has never sought the spotlight, but is always ready with a smile and a story when it shines his way. Rather than seek out deep-pocketed owners with well-bred horses for big-name races, he has lived a lifetime in his native Maryland grinding out wins with stock and at tracks that rarely get national attention.
“He’s the most loveable guy I know,” Avon Thorpe, Leatherbury’s assistant and right-hand man for the past 24 years, said. “He’s accomplished a lot and he’s just cool and mellow about it. That’s the way he is. He did it the hard way. Now that most of his owners have passed and he hasn’t gotten new owners, his winning speaks for itself.”
Leatherbury’s success and longevity have been rewarded in 2015 with election to the Hall of Fame in his first time on the ballot. Not bad for a country boy who, other than two years in the U.S. Army and a pair of winters in central Florida, has never strayed far from his Mid-Atlantic roots.
“I’m very fortunate. I’ve had many honors and awards in my career, more than anyone could ever dream of in their profession,” Leatherbury said. “I’ve been around a long time. I’m very proud and honored to be elected. I’m just lucky enough to have lived this long. To do as well as I have, I guess it just came my way. There’s been a lot of luck involved.”
Born in Shady Side, Md., Leatherbury got his introduction to racing through his father, a small-time breeder and owner who took his son to the old Marlboro Race Course, a five-furlong track that opened in 1914 in Prince George’s County. Once part of the Maryland Fair circuit, its three-week meet was ultimately taken over by Bowie Racetrack to the north.
Leatherbury continued to follow and study horses at the University of Maryland and took out his trainer’s license in 1958. He won his first race in early 1959 at Sunshine Park, now known as Tampa Bay Downs, with a horse named Mister L. For the young Leatherbury, training horses in Florida was a dream come true.
“When I was in college, I hated Maryland weather in the winter. Even when the temperature wasn’t real cold, it was a damp cold,” he said. “I’m going from one building to another and I’m fussing about it and I’m saying, ‘Boy, once I get out on my own, you’ll never catch me in Maryland in the wintertime.’ Of course, I’ve been here every year.”
Following the winter of 1960, Leatherbury returned to Maryland to stay. The rest, as they say, is history. He became part of The Big Four with fellow trainers Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow and John Tammaro, who dominated the Mid-Atlantic circuit and have since passed away: Dutrow in 1999, Tammaro in 2001 and Delp, Hall of Fame conditioner of Spectacular Bid, in 2006.
“It wasn’t a choice. It was almost that I had to because all my owners were in Maryland and my father had a farm in Maryland. He was a breeder and he kicked me off in the game,” Leatherbury said. “It was our competition that really drove us to try hard and beat the other guy. That was our objective. Delp was the initial leading trainer and we all kind of tried to knock him off. I was very fortunate to be on top many years of that group.”
Leatherbury has won 52 training titles in Maryland, 26 apiece at Laurel Park and Pimlico, and another four at Delaware Park, when that track was essentially part of the Maryland circuit. He won at least 200 races for 11 straight years from 1974 through 1984, leading all American trainers in victories in 1976 and 1977, and had 100 or more winners for 26 consecutive years (1972 through 1997).
Starting with Do the Bump in the Grade 3 Allegheny in 1976, Leatherbury has won 154 stakes and 23 graded stakes with 13 horses, including multiple winners Ben’s Cat, Ah Day, Ameri Valay, Taking Risks, Wait for the Lady, Learned Jake, Catatonic, Thirty Eight Go Go and Thirty Eight Paces. Catatonic in the 1987 Hempstead and Taking Risks in the 1994 Iselin were each Grade 1 winners.
At the time of his Hall of Fame election, Leatherbury ranked fourth all-time in wins by a trainer as one of just four to top the 6,000 mark, standing at 6,455 and counting. His horse of a lifetime in a lifetime of horses is 9-year-old gelding Ben’s Cat, a four-time Maryland Horse of the Year who Leatherbury bred, owns and has trained to 29 wins, 24 of them in stakes, through 46 starts with nearly $2.4 million in purse earnings.
“I feel young and I act young and if it just wasn’t for mirrors, I would think I was young,” Leatherbury said. “I’ve been lucky. When I think about it, all the guys I started with are dead and gone. I’ve been very fortunate to last this long. It hasn’t made a big head out of me, but over my career I have received so many honors and awards it’s just amazing. To me, I don’t think of myself as anything special.
“Even with a cheap claimer, I always get a thrill out of winning. That’s basically what I’m known for — winning races. It’s just added up over the years.”