At Pimlico this morning trainer Jack Glaver watched intently alongside the clockers as Woodchopper worked a mile in preparation for Saturday's Preakness. John Campo went into Pleasant Colony's stall and supervised as a blacksmith put a new shoe on the Kentucky Derby winner. Jack Van Berg looked over Bold Ego with the care of a jeweler inspecting a priceless diamond.
This conscientiousness, this close attention to every centimeter of a thoroughbred's running apparatus, is what characterizes almost all successful horse trainers. For this reason, most racetrackers observe King T. Leatherbury with a measure of disbelief.
When his colt, Thirty Eight Paces, worked out this morning for the biggest race of his career, Leatherbury wasn't watching. He wasn't even at the track. He had given instructions to rider Bill Passmore the day before, and an assistant called him at his home in Laurel to tell him what the cold had done.
"You guys in the press are always writing that a horse does something 'under the watchful eye' of his trainer. You watch the movies and you see a trainer with a stopwatch clocking his horses at dawn and that looks good. You see trainers running their hands over their horses legs, and I guess that looks good to an owner. But you know and I know that's all a bunch of showmanship."
Purists and traditionalists might be appalled by this view, and Marylanders might snicker about the little time that Leatherbury spends around his horses, but any criticisms of the trainer have to be tempered by one consideration: his record. In every year since 1975, Leatherbury has ranked among the top three race-winning trainers in the country. Twice, he has won the training title. Her has done it with a unique approach to the game.
Leatherbury studied business administration at the University of Maryland, and he approached the training profession more like a businessman than an old-school horseman. He doesn't believe in getting down on the floor of his horses' stallls any more than corporate executives believe they should pick up a screwdriver and spend time on an assembly line. Like them, Leatherbury is a manager who sits behind a desk and delegates authority.
"When a horse has got a problem in his leg, I call the vet. When he's got foot trouble, the blacksmith handles it. I've got Joe Aitcheson galloping horses and he's one of the best boys on a horse's back; he can feel more in the horse than I could ever see. What I do is plan and schedule what I want to do with all my horses."
Even with a horse he thinks has an outside shot to win the Preakness on Saturday, Leatherbury sees no reason to alter his methods. Even with a horse who might evoke a lot of sentimentality in other trainers, he is strictly business.
Five years ago, Leatherbury was training a courageous and brilliantly fast filly named Thirty Paces, who won the first five starts of her life. In her sixth start, she reached the turn with a big lead, and shattered her knee. It was almost a miracle that surgeons were able to save her for a career as a broodmare.
When Thirty Paces' first offspring was sold at auction, Leatherbury bought him for $38,000. He has never regretted the investment. Thirty Eight Paces has won five of his nine starts and never finished out of the money. But he has not yet met up stakes-quality opposition and has run farther than a mile only once.
Leatherbury is characteristically realistic about the colt and the Preakness. "He has lovely action -- smooth as silk -- and he has all the qualifications of a real good horse," the trainer said. "I'm very optimistic about this horse but not that optimistic about this race. Thirty Eight Paces has not really filled out yet and he isn't looking as good as he should look. At this time next year, I won't be scared of anybody. Right now, we're asking a lot."
Even for such a special race, however, Leatherbury isn't going to lean against the rail at Pimlico, clocking his horse's workout, or run his hands up and down Thirty Eight Paces' legs. "If I stood in front of his stall all day and slept with him at night," he asked, "would it make him run any faster?"