SARATOGA SPRINGS - Once upon a time, Maryland racing really mattered. On Friday, the Hall of Fame's doors opened for four major figures from the Old Line State, as trainer King Leatherbury, jockey Chris Antley, owner-breeder and racing executive Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and the mare Xtra Heat were inducted into the shrine.
All started in Maryland, where Leatherbury, 82, has earned most of his 6,457 victories, ranked fourth all time. Antley took the Kentucky Derby in 1991 (Strike the Gold) and 1999 (Charismatic) and on Halloween (1987) won nine races, five at Aqueduct and four at The Meadowlands. In 1989, he rode a winner on 64 consecutive racing days, a record considered as unbreakable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
Vanderbilt (1912-1999) operated Sagamore Farm in Maryland and owned all-time great Native Dancer, 21-for-22 lifetime.
Xtra Heat, a $5,000 purchase, won 26 stakes, a modern record for a female thoroughbred, for Maryland-based trainer John Salzman.
Leatherbury stole the show with a routine worthy of Comedy Central. The old-school guy has a rotary dial phone, a semi-defective fax machine and no computer. Technophobia hasn't hurt his communication skills.
"For years, people told me I should be in the Hall of Fame," Leatherbury said. "When I got nominated, they said I was even-money to get in, but I said I've run a lot of even-money shots who got beat. So when they told me I'd been voted in, naturally I demanded a recount."
Here's Leatherbury's take on Florida, where in 1959 he got his first win at Sunshine Park: "On the East Coast is where the old people live. On the West Coast is where their parents live."
The King of Comedy lightened the mood after Antley's widow, Natalie Antley, spoke of the self-destructive tendencies that derailed a brilliant career and killed Antley at 34. Emcee Tom Durkin said, "I don't know if I've ever seen a jockey with more talent." Rider Gary Stevens called Antley "a natural who connected with horses in a way few people can."
Antley, who suffered from depression, had alcohol and drug problems. He died Dec. 2, 2000, of an overdose, five weeks before Natalie gave birth to their only child, Violet.
"With Chris, it was bipolarity," she said. "There were great achievements in his career, but his actions and decisions off the track sometimes led to tragedy."
She expressed gratitude to those who had voted for him. "Today, you have showed what can happen when you push aside fear and let love win."
Notes & quotes: Others in the Class of 2015 are John Hay Whitney (1904-1982), who ran Greentree Stable and owned Hall of Famer Tom Fool; California-bred gelding Lava Man, who earned more than $5.2 million and in 2006 became the first to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic; Billy Kelly, stablemate of the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, whom he defeated many times, and jockey Vincent Powers (1892-1966), the only dual champion on the flat and over jumps.