It's a sad but inevitable truth that by the time a racehorse passes the age of 10, he's usually either bent, bowed or (shudder!) bowwow burgers. Not Port Conway Lane, who's 14 but is definitely none of the above. Racing fans call him the Old Man, though you'd never know it to see the gelding run. "Port's a real rarity," says Chris Scherf of the Thoroughbred Racing Association. Oh, there are a few other thoroughbreds who are still running at Port's age, but none has won as many races—last fall, at the age of 13, Port Conway Lane racked up his 50th victory.
Let's go back to Nov. 24, a sunny, blustery day at Laurel (Md.) Race Course, and the start of the second race, a $5,000 claiming race to be run at a mile. The gates spring open, the nine-horse field breaks well and the crowd of 6,461 is on its feet, going a little crazier than usual. These are serious horseplayers; they've been studying the past performances, and they know that the Old Man is going for his 50th. As the field approaches the top of the stretch. Port, who's giving away as many as nine years to the competition, makes his move. He's tracking a 6-year-old upstart named Classy Mac, who's second to the Old Man's third and then first to the Old Man's second. Near the 16th pole. Port passes Classy Mac and goes on to win by half a length.
When Port is led into the winner's circle, the Laurel fans, packed four deep around him, cheer and applaud. The horse's whole crew is there, including his trainer, 48-year-old King T. Leatherbury, who usually doesn't bother to go down to the winner's circle. Port's jockey, Bill Passmore, no kid himself at 49, pats the old horse and smiles. Passmore, too, is known as the Old Man, and someone in the crowd shouts, "Hey, King, why don't you turn them both out to pasture?" There's a lot of guffawing at this. Port Conway Lane's owner, 23-year-old Glenn Lane (no kin), is also on hand. Lane knows that, like fame, the owning of claimers is fleeting.
Leatherbury, an unsentimental man who has been training for 24 years, is moved to say, "I've never been with a horse who got such an ovation. All those people yelling for the Old Man! It brought tears to my eyes."
Leatherbury and Port Conway Lane go back a long way together. When a Baltimore furniture salesman named William Stokes bought the colt at the September yearling sales at Keeneland in 1970 for a mere $7,000, it was Leatherbury who took over as trainer. They have done very well together. After winning allowance races at two, three and four years old, Port moved up in class and started winning stakes races: the Bowie, Baltimore and Greenville handicaps at five, and the Baltimore and Terrapin at six.
Shortly thereafter, it was decided that Port deserved a rest, so he was turned out at Leatherbury's 200-acre farm in West River, Md. He hated it. Most horses become placid and lazy down on the farm; Port became a nervous wreck. He stopped eating. He paced about his paddock. So after only three months, it was back to the track where he has been thriving ever since.
Port's 50th win was also the 227th time he'd put his nose across a finish line, and it brought his lifetime earnings to a handsome $420,481. His three races since then have increased that amount to $422,291. Mind you, those paychecks have gone to 13 different owners and were earned at 17 different racetracks, from Monmouth Park to Hialeah. In 1982 Port picked up $18,685, more than enough to keep him in oats.
But being in a claiming race is a lot like dropping into a singles bar. You never know whom you'll end up going home with. When Port won No. 50, he'd already been claimed nine times. Three of those times, Leatherbury did the claiming. After the 50th, the trainer started getting phone calls from prospective buyers. One was from a man in Kentucky offering $1,000. "He said he wanted to buy Port for a conversation piece," said Leatherbury. "And another guy called from Virginia and offered to take him off my hands for $500. Port would bring about $600 at the dog-food factory, he's so fat, so $1,000 isn't all that much."
Leatherbury said he planned to keep racing Port until the gelding stopped picking up checks, at which point he'd either be sold or turned out on Leatherbury's farm, whether Port liked it or not. As it turned out, this decision was taken out of Leatherbury's hands on Dec. 3, when Port Conway Lane was entered in another $5,000 claiming race at Laurel. He finished second and was claimed by 51-year-old trainer Marvin Kuhn on behalf of 70-year-old J. McLean Shepherd, a retired tobacco farmer from Harwood, Md. "Racing claimers is like a poker game," said Leatherbury. "You try to read the other guy's mind. I was shocked to lose Port. I didn't think anyone would claim a horse this old. But there haven't been 10 trainers in the history of racing who've claimed more horses than I have. You live by the sword, you die by it."
As for Kuhn, he said he didn't claim Port for the publicity. "I did it because he makes money," he said. And it wasn't as if Port were being picked up by some total strangers. The first person to claim Port, in June of 1978, was Barbara Shepherd Vranas, Kuhn's assistant trainer and J. McLean's daughter. In fact, Kuhn has claimed Port three times and sold him once, all for different owners.
Shepherd, who's been retired since 1979, has owned thoroughbreds off and on for the past 10 years. "It helps me pass the time to have a racehorse to watch," he said. "I've seen Port win a lot of races. You can't help knowing him, he's been around so long." Shepherd does own one other horse, but he's turned out, so at least for now, the Old Man is the only horse the old man will be watching.
Port's first outing under his new-old trainer was in a 1[1/16]th-mile starter handicap on Jan. 8 at Bowie. The competition included horses that had recently won races worth as much as $12,500; the Old Man was sent off at 11-1 in the field of 11. He finished 11th. "Outrun" read the Daily Racing Form. Seventeen days later Port brought in a $660 paycheck for Shepherd by finishing third in a six-furlong race. The Old Man just might be working his way up to a 51st win.
Because there's no age limit for racing in Maryland, it's possible that Port will keep going to the post for years to come. His tattered foal certificate—it has been passed around to so many racetracks that it's held together with Scotch tape—indicates that he is, or was, a gray colt, foaled on March 10, 1969, by Bold Commander (sire of the 1970 Kentucky Derby winner Dust Commander) out of an unraced mare named Grey Taffety. Next to "marks" the certificate reads, "Large star and connected irregular stripe, ending in center of face." You can't see the star and stripe anymore. As Port aged he turned increasingly whiter, and the marks have faded. Now there's a large bump, a benign subcutaneous tumor, where the star used to be. The folks who work around Port suspect he may turn into a unicorn someday. Indeed, his reputation for consistency and durability has already reached near-mythic proportions.
Port does not know he is old. When exercise rider Mike Torre takes him out for a mile and a quarter gallop, the gelding comes bounding back like a 2-year-old. "The first week or so, I had trouble getting along with him during his works, until I figured out how he wants to gallop," says Torre. "He likes to go along at his own pace. He's too smart to do anything to hurt himself." Which probably explains why he's lasted so long.
Meanwhile, Kuhn has gotten an offer equal to the original price paid for Port back in 1970 from a man who owns a big farm on Maryland's eastern shore. The man wants to use Port as a hunter. "He'd be a good hunter," says Kuhn. "Hell, he'd only have to go out maybe once a week."
Although Kuhn is seriously considering the offer, his immediate plans are to enter Port in a three-quarter-mile $6,500 claiming race on Valentine's Day at Bowie. His 231st start. But Kuhn will have to watch out for Port's old trainer. "I won't say that I will take this horse back," Leatherbury said after Kuhn claimed Port from him. "That would be tipping my hand. But I might."
The white-haired Old Man probably doesn't care who owns him. Just as long as whoever it is doesn't try to turn him out in some beautiful pasture. That would drive him crazy.
Having won his 50th race, it appears that Port's next big move may be to sprout a unicorn horn.
Unlike Port, Shepherd has now retired.
In winning No. 50, Port edged 6-year-old Classy Mac, who wasn't quite classy enough.