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“Thanks, King!” a woman yells at King Leatherbury.
The legendary trainer is standing at the bar in the dining room at Laurel Park, just after speaking at a handicapping seminar for newbie racing fans. Leatherbury told the group to bet the #7 horse in the third race on Saturday’s card, and throw the #3 and #6 horses into their bets, too.
The woman bet them all. The race finished 7-6-3, so her $2 bet returned $208.20 for the triple and $55.80 for the exacta.
“It’s not always that easy,” Leatherbury says with a laugh as the woman walks away to cash her tickets.
These days, it’s a bet Leatherbury didn’t make that nags him.
A horse he bred, owns, and trains, Ben’s Cat, has come out of nowhere—or, more specifically, out of Leatherbury’s Laurel-based stable—to rank among the world’s best turf sprinters.
On Labor Day, Ben’s Cat won the Turf Monster Handicap, a graded stakes race at Parx Racing near Philadelphia. Under normal circumstances, the race’s winner would automatically qualify for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. That’s a Nov. 5 race with a $1 million purse held at Churchill Downs as part of Breeders’ Cup Day, the biggest day on the racing calendar.
But the Turf Sprint, like all Breeders’ Cup races, is only open to horses that were registered at birth for Breeder’s Cup eligibility.
When Ben’s Cat was born in April 2006, that fee was $500 per horse.
Leatherbury didn’t pay it.
Born King T. Leatherbury in 1933 in Shady Side, Md., the trainer got into racing as a teenager, watching his father train a few horses at Maryland tracks while he studied business at the University of Maryland.
“It was the gambling, not the racing, that got me,” Leatherbury says. “I loved gambling.”
Leatherbury went on to a career so great that folks at Laurel Park would still call him King even if that weren’t his real name. Horses he’s trained have won 6,325 races and counting since 1959, which makes him the third winningest trainer in the history of the sport. He led the entire country in wins in 1977 and 1978.
But none of those wins came on big stages like the Triple Crown series or the Breeders’ Cup. For all his years in racing, Leatherbury put just one horse into the Kentucky Derby. That came in 1985, when I Am the Game went off as a 101-1 longshot and finished dead last, nearly 30 lengths off the pace. The race chart reduces I Am the Game’s performance to merely “failed to be a serious factor.” (Derby souvenir shops sell official mint julep glasses engraved with the names of Secretariat and other winners; Louisville bars sell $2 plastic beer mugs with I Am the Game stenciled alongside the handles of the other 135 last-place-finishers.)
Leatherbury has never trained a Breeders’ Cup entry. He became the King of Maryland by winning more claiming and allowance races than anybody else, with horses that outran their breeding—like Ben’s Cat.
Typical high-level owners and trainers automatically pay the Breeders’ Cup fee for foals. But, again, Leatherbury caught racing fever from the gambling, not the racing; by paying the fee at birth, he would have, in effect, been betting that his horse could achieve greatness. He still defends not making that bet.
“His breeding didn’t suggest he’d be that quality of horse,” Leatherbury says of Ben’s Cat. “And I never had [Breeders’ Cup] quality of horses, really. If you have six or seven yearlings each year, and you pay the fee for all of ‘em, well, at [$500] each that adds up to pretty good money.”
Ben’s Cat, indeed, comes from humble stock. His mother, the Leatherbury-owned Twofox, had three wins, none of them stakes, in 23 races. Ben’s Cat’s dad, Parker’s Storm Cat, had only four middling races of his own before retiring; he’d never sired a winner when Ben’s Cat was conceived.
So Parker’s Storm Cat, who stands at Country Life Farm in Bel Air, commanded a stud fee of just $1,700. As equestrian sexual services go, that’s a crack whore’s wage. (For some perspective: Storm Cat, Ben’s Cat’s grandfather and among the best studs in the land, charged $500,000 per lay.)
Leatherbury’s non-bet looked pretty good early on. Ben’s Cat broke his pelvis at age two, an age when most thoroughbreds are beginning their careers. “He spent about a whole year here, just getting better,” says Fern Augusti, a groom for King T. Leatherbury Stables and Ben’s Cat’s personal valet, patting the big black horse’s nose in a barn on the Laurel Park backstretch. “He’s all better now.”
The vets ruled that Ben’s Cat’s injury wasn’t so severe that he couldn’t race. So Leatherbury put him on the track in May, 2010, at age four. In a six-furlong maiden claiming race at Pimlico, he won by nearly two lengths.
A month later, Ben’s Cat won his second start, another claiming race at Delaware Park where anybody at the track could have bought the horse for $20,000. Leatherbury started paying closer attention, pulling the horse out of the claiming ranks and entering him in allowance races, the next tier up, and then on to moneyed stakes races.
And Ben’s Cat kept winning. He won the first eight races of his career, on both turf and dirt.
The win in the Turf Monster Handicap made the racing world pay attention. It gave Ben’s Cat 12 wins in 17 starts, including seven stakes wins for a career earnings total of $676,230.
The Breeders’ Cup leaves a window for folks in Leatherbury’s circumstances: Owners of ineligible horses can buy their eligibility for a $100,000 supplemental fee.
“I don’t want to pay it,” says Leatherbury. “I never liked paying entry fees myself.”
But Leatherbury knows his own racing run is nearing its end. He once had over 70 horses running for his stable; now he has 17. Half the stalls at his barn at Laurel Park were horseless when I visited last weekend. “All the owners that used to send me horses are dead,” he says. “And nobody’s going to turn a horse over to a 78-year-old trainer.”
And despite his amazing stats, Leatherbury has not been elected to racing’s Hall of Fame. An appearance at the Breeders’ Cup should cement his induction.
So he’s gotten word out to the racing world that he’ll put Ben’s Cat in the Breeder’s Cup if somebody else comes forward with the $100,000 supplemental fee.
“I’ll get the horse ready and pay for shipping to Churchill Downs and everything else,” he says. “I’ll pay the $100,000 back from whatever we win in the race, and we’ll split the rest. Somebody could make some good money.”
He’s got a good case. Leatherbury has heard Ben’s Cat is currently rated as the third best sprinter on grass, meaning if he ran to form, he’d finish in the money at the Breeder’s Cup. The winner gets $600,000, second place is worth $200,000, and third place brings $110,000.
Plus, there’s the human- and equine-interest angles.
“It really is a great story,” says Brad Cummings, editor of the Paulick Report, an industry publication written for the hardcorest horseplayers. “We’d certainly be excited to see King at the Breeders’ Cup, and in the Hall of Fame.”
When the Paulick Report staff heard about Leatherbury’s dilemma, they came up with a plan to try to raise the fee by setting up a pool where readers could pitch in and buy shares.
Leatherbury politely declined the offer, says Cummings, apparently because of the complications a shareholder set-up could bring.
Leatherbury will run Ben’s Cat this weekend at Laurel Park in the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint. But he admits he’s keeping an eye on Churchill Downs, too, just in case somebody steps up in the next month with the Breeders’ Cup fee.
“This race fits in with his training [for the Breeders’ Cup],” he says. “I don’t want to make a big deal about it, but if somebody has some money they want to play around with, they can do this. It’s a gamble, no question, but I think it’s a good bet.”
And, as that lady who thanked him in the Laurel Park bar knows, when King Leatherbury tells you something’s a good bet, you should listen.
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