Trainer King Leatherbury puts on his Hall of Fame jacket with the help of longtime thoroughbred owner Glenn Land during an induction ceremony Friday. (Mike Groll/AP)
Columnist

In a career spanning nearly six decades, King T. Leatherbury has been one of the most consistent and prolific race-winning trainers in the history of the thoroughbred sport. He is one of only five members of his profession with more than 6,000 victories. Yet until Friday, his feats had gone unrecognized by the Racing Hall of Fame.

Most of the trainers with bronze plaques in the National Museum of Racing were blessed by the racing gods. Many worked for affluent owners who filled their barns with high-class prospects. Some made their reputations by training one exceptional horse. But trainers such as Leatherbury, who live by their wits managing stables filled with lowly claiming horses, are rarely considered for the Hall of Fame. And the argument that Leatherbury belonged there was undermined by the fact that his methods bore no resemblance to those of great horsemen.

But at the age of 82, with his most productive years behind him, Leatherbury took his place among the sport’s immortals. The man who won with thousands of modestly bred horses got his belated recognition because of one modestly bred animal, Ben’s Cat, who put Leatherbury in the limelight.

Leatherbury was the final honoree at Friday’s induction ceremony, which had been filled with tedious recitations of the achievements of owners, trainers, jockeys and horses. Leatherbury came to the podium, offered a few perfunctory thank yous and said nothing about his profession or about horses. He proceeded to tell jokes for 10 minutes. He will never fit into a conventional mold.

Leatherbury got hooked on racing while he was a business student at the University of Maryland and regularly hitchhiked to Laurel or Bowie to play the races. He relished handicapping and betting — and still does.

“I wasn’t a lover of horses per se,” he admitted. “I was a lover of the game.”

His father was a small-scale breeder and owner of thoroughbreds, and Leatherbury was unimpressed by the trainers who handled those horses. In that era, trainers seldom claimed horses from each other; the practice wasn’t considered genteel. Owners and trainers would keep individual horses for years, even if they weren’t productive.

Leatherbury thought he could do better, and he launched his career around the time that another future Hall of Famer, Bud Delp, was starting to dominate the game in Maryland. Leatherbury emulated Delp’s game plan: assemble a large stable, claim horses aggressively and manage them aggressively. If he had an unproductive $10,000 claimer, he would drop him in class sharply, hoping to win a race and lose the horse. When Dick Dutrow joined the fray, the Big Three made Maryland as competitive as any racing circuit in the country. “The competition,” Leatherbury said, “made all of us better.”

Leatherbury believed that the key to success in the business was smart management. Claim the right horses. Enter them in the right spots. To this day he does most of his work as a trainer in his home office, not at the track or in the vicinity of his horses. He will go to his barn at Laurel perhaps twice a week — “just to show up and let them help know I’m paying attention.” He is dismissive of the traditional horsemen who lean over a rail with a stopwatch in their hands as they watch a workout intently or who walk through the barn feeling the legs of every horse.

“That’s all a lot of bull,” Leatherbury said. “I don’t try to diagnose physical problems; I have professional vets for that.”

Glenn Lane, a former owner who introduced Leatherbury at the ceremony, observed, “He may not go to the barn as often as the traditional horsemen, but his instincts and experience always enabled him to make the best possible decisions.”

The numbers validate Leatherbury’s approach: He has won 6,457 races, ranking fourth on the career list. But in recent years, those victories have come more slowly. The modern game is filled with other shrewd trainers who are smart about claiming and managing horses. Leatherbury is realistic: “If a new owner comes into the game with $100,000 to spend, who’s he going to go with?” He answered: “A young guy he can grow with.”

As his wins have become rarer, his stable has shrunk. He now trains just 14 horses, seven of which he owns himself. The man who twice led the nation with more 300 victories in a year has averaged slightly more than 30 wins a year since 2010. Asked whether he would consider retiring, he said, pragmatically, “If I don’t have enough outside income to pay my bills.”

Leatherbury’s horses include some that he bred. When he mated an unraced mare named Twofox to an obscure stallion, Parker’s Storm Cat, the most he could have expected was a useful claiming horse. Indeed, Ben’s Cat started his career in 2010 by winning a maiden $20,000 claiming race at Pimlico. The trainer couldn’t have imagined what was coming next.

Ben’s Cat reeled off eight straight victories, prompting Leatherbury to weigh his options. Ben’s Cat had speed and enough stamina to win at one mile; he was equally adept on dirt and grass. Leatherbury reasoned that the competition in turf sprints is relatively soft and that there were plenty of good money-making opportunities in these races in the Mid-Atlantic region. In 2011, he started running Ben’s Cat principally in five-furlong stakes races on grass. The trainer picked his spots so judiciously that Ben’s Cat never found himself in a spot that was too tough for him. In the past four years, the gelding has gone off at odds of more than 4 to 1 in just three races (and won them all.) His career record to date: 48 starts, 29 wins, 41 in-the-money finishes, earnings of $2,425,405.

Leatherbury might never have reached the Hall of Fame on the strength of his 6,000-plus victory total. But his name appeared on the ballot in a year when Ben’s Cat’s was still going strong at the age of 9, reminding voters just how sagaciously his trainer always has been able to manage a horse.

For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.