Owner/Trainer Profile: Meet Michael Leaf

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Michael Leaf cut through the center of the Great Meadow course, abandoning his course walk. Comrades yelled to him, “What are you doing? You’ve still got half the course to walk.”
The too-tall, starving, wanna-be jockey shook his head, waved his arm and told them the deal.

“There ain’t no sense in me walking the whole course, there is no chance I’m getting this far,” Leaf said, barely slowing his pace. He went back to the jocks’ room.

It was 1994, Leaf, an outsider in an insular game, shipped Sunny Express to Great Meadow to run in a maiden claimer. He designated his mom, Patricia Leaf, as trainer,  his girlfriend (future wife) Carol Lane down as owner.

Purchased from Ross Pearce , Sunny Express wasn’t much horse. By Sunny’s Halo out of a Cannonade mare (“crazy on crazy,” as Leaf put it), the 4-year-old took Leaf farther than he expected, still peddling as the field went down the backside the last time. Leaf started counting and plotting.

“It was a 14-horse field and I was number 13. I sat back there, because I didn’t want to get run over if I came off. He trashed a couple of fences, the final time down the backside I still had the Vulcan death grip on him,” Leaf said. “I started counting horses in front of me, I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, I get 2 percent if I move up to sixth, 3 percent if I . . .’ I’m like, ‘this will pay for my mom’s license, if I pick up one more, this will pay for my wife’s license.’ ”

Sunny Express forced Leaf to do new math.

“It was a photo finish, won by a head. Chip Miller and Jonathan Kiser, a dead heat for second,” Leaf said. “I couldn’t believe it. That was probably my best day of racing.”
Sunny Express earned $2,500 and Leaf had his first and only win as a jockey.

Eighteen years later, three of the 14 jockeys in that race are dead, five train steeplechase horses, one runs a race meet, others left the grid. Richard Boucher is the only one still riding professionally. Chip Miller and Brooks Durkee have come back as amateurs. Leaf is still in the game, still paying for those licenses, 1 percent at a time.

A blacksmith by trade, Leaf pays his bills by hammering shoes for loyal clients like Michael Hankin and Alicia Murphy. Leaf feeds his competitive bug by training five horses off a family farm in Hampstead, Md. With help from Doug Bailey, Leaf trains for fun. He produced Durer to win the maiden claimer at Stoneybrook.

Leaf, 41, is the blacksmith, exercise rider, van driver . . . all for the love of the game, instilled in him from his dad, Robert Leaf, who rode jumpers in the 1940s.

“He was the first one to school Neji, he was a good horse,” Leaf said of the champion. “He got to ride some good horses, they had good horses, nothing but good horses.”

Leaf shoes nice horses and tries to develop nice horses on a modest budget.

“I have to go shoe and make money, my bills get paid regardless of how my horses run, which is good, I can play the game the way it’s meant to be played. There’s no desperation, ‘I hope I win because I have a bill in hand,’ ” Leaf said. “I’ve got my son, he’s 5, he can grow up on the farm. My mother has a house on the farm, I have a house on the farm, it’s sweet, I love it.”

In steeplechasing – life, for that matter – perspective is lost more often than it’s gained. The perspective gained by trying to do it yourself, trying to roll that rock up that hill one more time, is more difficult to lose. Leaf was counting places to pay for licenses in 1994, that’s perspective. And, yes, 18 years later, it’s still there, still at a premium.

“It’s a fun game, it’s the Sport of Kings, you don’t make any money, a $5,000 claimer at Charles Town runs for more purse money than a lot of jump races, that’s going 4 1/2 furlongs on the flat,” Leaf said. “You either have a lot of money or you really enjoy it and I really enjoy it. I fully accept I won’t have any money but I’m going to have a load of fun. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re a fool, don’t do it.”

From Sunny Express to Durer, Leaf has enjoyed it.