King Leatherbury saddled 322 winners last season, more than any other trainer in the United States. If the 34 owners who pay the bills for the 70 thoroughbreds he trains aren't doing fairly well financially, who is?
Leatherbury, Buddy Delp and Dickie Dutrow all based their racing operations in Maryland, their home area. They are three of the most successful horsemen in the world, dealing in large volume and quick turnovers within the claiming market. All three stress proper management as the key to theor success. Yet it is Delp's claim that 95 percent of the owners in Maryland are losing money.
"Our purses are not comparable to those in Pennsylvania and New Jersey," he said recently at Bowie. "A race for maidens nonclaiming at Keystone is a $7,000 pot. Here it's $5,000. We see that. Everybody sees that. Less than 200 miles away, where the competition is not any tougher than it is here, they're running for 25 percent more. We're averaging slightly under $50,000 in purses a day in Maryland. We need $20,000 a day more to be competitive."
A while ago, Delp recalls, "three guys came to me with $5,000 each and said they wanted to get into the game; they wanted to own a horse. Before the first year was over, each one made $5,000. The following year each made another $5,000. That put them ahead $15,000 in terms of their investment . . . and each year they kept the pot going. If we did good we bought more. If we started doing bad we'd liquidate a couple of horses. Then, one day, when Scam was in his prime, we appraised the stable. It was worth $200,000.
"If this happened every time you'd have every Tom, Dick and Harry in racing tomorrow, owning a horse. But that's the beautiful story - the story of the CSW Stable and that's the great part about this game. You don't have to be wealthy. But it's getting tougher, much tougher. All the costs are going up in Maryland, like everywhere else, and our purses aren't increasing.
"If you don't use the veterinarian you're cutting your own throat.If you buy cheaper, less nutritious feed, the horse is not going to be as strong. I've found no place in my operation where I can save money by spending less.
"We need help. The owner needs relief. And he needs it now."
Delp asked his accountant to compile a cost analysis for his stable operation from Aug. 1, 1976, through July 31, 1977. The figures were revealing. They showed the trainer to be making a net profit of $1.35 per day per horse from the $22 per diem he charged the horse's owners.
Hay and feed expenses totaled $152,075; direct labor, $354,488; payroll taxes, $354,488 . . . ttilte PQFI m . . . a3 nda 194. The number of horse days (number of horses in training times the number of fays in training) came out of 26,927.
"Broken down to a 'per horse day' this means it costs me $5.66 a day for beding and feeding," Delp declared. "The labor, for hot walkers, grooms, exercise boys, stable foremen and assistant trainers was $13.16.Taxes, like the number of days in training) came $546,190 from the owners during that 12-month period. And my gross profit before operating expenses and that Social Security, were $1.28. I took in before operating expenses and salaries was $36,468 or $1.35 per horse per day - and that didn't include the expenses paid directly by the owners."
Those costs, billed directly, were as follows: compensation insurance, $18,042; blacksmith, $28,020; lead ponies (to post), $9,580; vitamins (feed supplements) $5,744, and tack (from bandages to saddles) $23,376.
"This doesn't include the veterinarian bills which each owner pays directly," Delp added. "I'd estimate the vet bills average $60 per horse per month. Why, it's $6 for a Bute (Butazolidin) shot these days, and I don't think the vets are overcharging."The blacksmith bill is $30, going up to $35, for a horse to get new shoes once a month. Then there's the stable stake. If a horse wins a purse of more than $6,500, the owner stakes the help to $150 and I kick it with about $20 from my 10 percent commission. That's the way we work it."
What this shows is that the present purse structure may work well for the outstanding trainer who makes an excellent living by being a little sharper than his competition, but the owner is left out in the cold. If this trend continues even the most successful trainer, before long, will find it difficult to keep his owners happy, or even solvent.
"An owner can go cheaper than the $22 or $25 or $27 a day that's tops on the Maryland circuit," Delp said. "He can find a trainer who will take his horse for $18 or maybe $16 but he's going to get a bad job. A lot of corners are going to be cut.
"The cutback is happening already. A lot of owners who used to have eight horses are saying, 'Let's cut down to four.'"
Delp continued, "If a trainer is left free to operate his stable the way it should be done, then the trainer can make out strictly on his 10 percent commission from everything the horses earn. But for so many of the new owners coming into racing today, it's so brief - one shot and they're out. They see the glory side of it but they don't really know what it's all about.
"I'll tell a new client, more than likely you're going to have a little fun and you're going to lose a little money. If you can take $20,000, and the wind comes and blows it away, and it's not going to change your life style, it's not going to hurt you, okay. But that $20,000 can get blown away. Don't use your 'case' money on these horses."
Delp's stable earned more than $1,400,000 last season, which means the trainer received $140,000 in commissions. The owners got the rest, less the jockeys' fees (10 percent to the winning rider).
"I'm obviously not pleading a case for myself, but I certainly am trying to wake up some people down there in Annapolis as to the facts of life in racing today," Delp said. "I wish we could make them see how drastically the owners need help, how badly Maryland racing needs help if it is going to hold its own with neighboring areas. The quality of the racing here is descending."
Delp fears that disastrous times are near.
"I'm afraid that the racing industry in Maryland is going to hit rock bottom before there's relief, and I don't want to be around to see that, much as I love Maryland," he said. "We'll know in the next two months, with the State Legislature. If there's no help coming I'll go to Pimlico, then to Delaware Park this summer, then I'll take all the stalls Meadowlands (New Jersey) will give me instead of coming back to Maryland.
"I don't want to be put in the position here of training for somebody so that, when I go to bed at night, I'd be saying to myself, 'If I don't win tomorrow, this poor guy is going to be hurt.' And thank goodness I don't train for somebody like that.
"How long the owners left here in Maryland will last is going to depend on how lucky they'll be, and who's doing the training."