by Frank Vespe
Score one — make that two — for Maryland racing.
King Leatherbury, the octogenarian trainer who has amassed more than 6,400 wins in a six-decade career, and Xtra Heat, the fleet filly who set a record for stakes wins by a distaff runner, will enter racing’s Hall of Fame, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame announced this morning via Twitter.
Congratulations to Chris Antley, King Leatherbury, Lava Man and Xtra Heat, the newest members of the Hall of Fame!
— Racing Hall of Fame (@nmrhof) April 20, 2015
The two, both based in and primarily associated with Maryland during their careers, will be joined at the August 7 ceremony by two other new inductees, the late jockey Chris Antley and claiming horse-turned-Grade 1 winner Lava Man.
Leatherbury’s induction — following something of a national debate and a low-key lobbying effort by many who believed that the honor was long overdue — recognizes a career built on equal parts longevity and innovation.
He won his first race — at Florida’s Sunshine Park — in 1959 and has gone on to record 6,454 victories, fourth most all time, with career earnings of nearly $63 million. What’s more, at an age — 82 — when most have retired, Leatherbury continues to defy the odds. His horses have won over $1 million in each of the last three years, and he’s clicking at a 20 percent rate so far in 2015.
During his career, Leatherbury built what for a time was one of the nation’s most potent stables. His runners won over 200 races for 11 consecutive years, from 1974 to 1984, and more than 300 in four of those seasons. Remarkably, he won 100 or more races every year from 1972 to 1997. He has won an astonishing 52 training titles at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.
During much of Leatherbury’s heyday, he was one of Maryland’s so-called “Big Four,” butting heads with rivals Dick Dutrow John Tammaro, and fellow Hall of Famer Bud Delp.
Yet as the number of Leatherbury’s clients — and his access to good horses — diminished, he adapted to stay relevant. He built his reputation in large part by claiming, and often improving horses — such as Taking Risks, whom he claimed for $20,000 and turned into a Grade 1 winner. But his two most significant horses of recent years — the ageless Ben’s Cat and graded stakes winner Ah Day, a near-millionaire — both were horses that he bred out of mares he bred by a sire, Thirty Eight Paces, that he trained.
Leatherbury was known for his innovations. Though he came along at a time when trainers generally had small strings at one stable, Leatherbury realized that he could expand his stable by putting trusted assistants in positions of authority and letting them do their jobs while focusing his energy on obtaining new horses, often via the claimbox, and placing them astutely.
Though that approach seems anything but novel now, at the time it represented something of a revolution in horsemanship and earned him, among other accolades, the John W. Galbreath Award for Outstanding Entrepreneurship in the Equine Industry from the University of Louisville. “King Leatherbury’s long-term approach to the operation of his enterprise has been innovative in application of business school insights to his training profession and his racing stable management,” the program’s director, Rich Wilcke, said at the time.
Despite the success and the awards, the Hall of Fame was an honor which eluded Leatherbury for many years. Yet, though many seemed frustrated by the perceived snub, Leatherbury was not among them. When asked, after he was named a finalist this year, if he thought he would get in, he responded, “No, no. Not really.”
“Whatever happens, you know,” he added. “I’m not getting optimistic, but I appreciate the honor.”
Xtra Heat, the bargain-basement filly who took her connections on a whirlwind tour, also earned induction. Purchased for just $5,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Sale of Two-Year-Olds in Training, Xtra Heat went on to win 26 races — 25 of them stakes — and earn nearly $2.4 million. She won 11 graded events, including the Grade 1 Prioress.
Her career is perhaps best remembered for two races: her heart-breaking near-miss second in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Spring (Grade 1), in which she set all the fractions before Squirtle Squirt ran her down late to win by a half-length; and her career-closing win in the 2003 Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie over the well-regarded Carson Hollow.
Prior to that latter race, Carson Hollow’s trainer Rick Dutrow had suggested to the media that the rest of the field was merely running for second money behind his filly. But in a dense fog — the official Equibase chart has no points of call recorded “due to dense fog” — it was Xtra Heat who burst through the mist to score a clear victory to cap her career. A big crowd ran to see the post-race ceremony, a moment Frank Carulli, then the Maryland Jockey Club’s track handicapper and analyst, remembered fondly.
“The fans were in waves coming down the track apron,” he recalled. “With all of them, and the picture flashes going off in the fog, it was absolutely numbing. It was so cool. You thought, ‘This is how horse racing ought to be.’”
Xtra Heat was trained by John Salzman, Sr. and owned for most of her career by him in partnership with Kenneth Taylor. Less than six weeks after Salzman and Taylor bought her, they ran her in a maiden claiming race at Laurel Park. After a poor start, she rallied to win narrowly under jockey Rick Wilson, who piloted her in most of her races. Not only was that her last visit to the claiming ranks; but it was also her last race outside of stakes company. She won six straight stakes that year before finishing tenth in the too-long-for-her Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
As a three-year-old in 2001, Xtra Heat won nine stakes, finished second against the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint — the Filly and Mare Sprint had not yet been inaugurated — and third against the boys in the Grade 1 De Francis Dash. Her sophomore resume — nine wins from 13 starts, over $1 million in earnings, and a pair of in-the-money finishes against males in major sprint races — earned her an Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old filly of 2001.
The following year, she added seven more stakes victories, as well as a third against the boys in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen on the Dubai World Cup card.
In winning the 2002 Fritchie, Xtra Heat earned her 25th and final stakes win to break the record for most stakes wins by a female. That record had been held by another Hall of Famer, Susan’s Girl.
(Look for in-depth coverage in the days to come.)