Anyone who has read the book or seen the movie "Seabiscuit" knows trainer Tom Smith pretty much spent night and day inside the barn with his horses. The old cowboy unlocked the secrets of Seabiscuit from the inside out, patiently over time, learning his habits, feelings, quirks and needs.
King T. Leatherbury, who will run the horse Malibu Moonshine on Saturday in the Preakness Stakes, has won 6,078 races, third-most in racing history, in a career that dates from 1959. Until the past couple years, however, Leatherbury hardly ever showed up at his barn, and he certainly never slept in it.
"He'd go out on payday, and that was it," said Hall of Fame trainer Grover "Bud" Delp, who, for years, along with Leatherbury, comprised half of Maryland racing's Big Four, which included the late Richard Dutrow Sr. and John Tammaro Jr.
Together and against each other, the Big Four in the 1960s and '70s helped modernize training, putting heavy emphasis on claiming horses and turning the business into a ruthless game of cunning in which the ability to handicap rivaled and often surpassed the need to know your way around the animals.
A couple of years ago, when he was struggling to nail down win No. 6,000 at the Timonium Fairgrounds meet, it looked as if the sport had passed Leatherbury by. But he has rebounded recently, with the help of a few good owners, and he not only will run in his fourth Preakness but leads all trainers at Pimlico this spring with eight victories in 17 starts.
"I'm so old, my owners have died off or gone out of business," Leatherbury, 72, said Sunday, handicapping the race card in his box seat at Pimlico.
Delp calls Leatherbury a genius because he won all those races pretty much working from home. While all the other trainers were up at sunrise, Leatherbury rarely got to the track until it was time to bet the Daily Double before the first race.
Armed with a degree in business administration from the University of Maryland, Leatherbury figured the claiming game -- in which licensed owners purchase horses from certain races for a specified price -- could be won by poring over Daily Racing Form charts and past performances and knowing the condition books at every track better than anyone else.
"Back in those days, the early '60s, no one claimed horses," Leatherbury said. "Those were the days people started managing horses in a business-like way. Delp was said to have a supermarket stable. He claimed horses to win and make a dollar."
Leatherbury, though, took it to an extreme.
"He was an in-the-office type guy," said Donald Miller, a former rider for Leatherbury, "like a mastermind, like the Wizard of Oz."
Leatherbury always had a devoted staff that followed his orders, and it reached the point where he sometimes only knew his horses by their names on the paper.