Nice ‘n’ easy does it for Ben’s Cat as he wins his fourth straight Mr. Diz. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.

Ben’s Cat won the Mister Diz in 2013, for the fourth straight year.  He’ll try to make it five in April. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.

by Ted Black

When it comes to mapping out the upcoming campaign for his talented homebred Ben’s Cat, longtime Maryland trainer King T. Leatherbury clearly adheres to the slogan, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Unraced at ages two and three, Ben’s Cat has won 24 of 37 starts and earned over $1.85 million during the first four years of his career, the last three of which have been virtual mirror images of one another. Now, aimed at a 2014 debut in the April 5 Mister Diz Stakes at Pimlico, Ben’s Cat is being pointed for another similar campaign.

“He’s had a couple of good workouts so far, especially that last one when he went a half-mile in 48,” Leatherbury said on Wednesday morning. “He came out of it really good, and he’s going to get two more workouts before the Mister Diz. That seems to be his race. He’s already won it the last four years and this one would be five if he gets it. I can’t think of too many horses that ever won the same stakes five years in a row.”

Ben’s Cat has launched his season in the Mister Diz in each of the last three years — in 2010, the race came mid-season, in August — en route to very lucrative campaigns.  He’s won at least five races, and at least $500,000, in each of the last three seasons.  He won eight of nine starts and earned over $200,000 in his inaugural campaign in 2010, at age four, after starting in claiming company.

There’s a reason his numbers have looked so similar in recent years.  His campaigns have been virtually identical, beginning with the Mister Diz and then moving through three Pennsylvania races, including the Grade 3 Turf Monster at Parx, a race he was won twice in the last three years.  From there, he’s returned home to run in the Laurel Dash and Maryland Million before finishing up his season on the dirt in the Fabulous Strike at Penn National.

Given how well that’s worked, it’s not too surprising that Leatherbury has similar plans for Ben’s Cat this year.

“It’s remarkable to look back at the similarities,” Leatherbury said. “I think his workouts this year and last year were only a day apart and the Mister Diz is one day earlier this year than last year. Then we’ll come back for the Jim McKay, a race that means a lot to me because Jim was a close, personal friend of mine. Then we have those races in Pennsylvania, the Maryland Million and then back to Penn National for the Fabulous Strike.”

Ben's Cat and Mr. Online in the Laurel Dash.  Photo by Laurie Asseo.

Ben’s Cat and Mr. Online in the Laurel Dash. Photo by Laurie Asseo.

In each of the past three years, Ben’s Cat has been selected as the Maryland-bred horse of the year in voting conducted by the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. The Parker’s Storm Cat gelding, out of the stakes-placed Thirty Eight Paces mare, Twofox, owns the distinction of being the only horse to garner that award three times and is currently eighth on the all-time money earners list for Maryland-breds with a chance to climb even higher.

“That’s quite an honor being selected Maryland-bred horse of the year three times,” Leatherbury said. “No other horse has ever done that, so that’s pretty impressive. He’s had a remarkable career so far and he’s still got plenty of races ahead of him. He even got selected as the top grass horse in Pennsylvania last year. I didn’t know anything about it until I got this big trophy sent to me in the mail.”

If everything goes according to plan this spring, summer and fall, Ben’s Cat will have several chances to defend his various titles, including that as grass specialist in Pennsylvania. After running in the Mister Diz and Jim McKay, he is being pointed for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup at Penn, both the Parx Dash and Turf Monster at Parx and following the Laurel Dash and Maryland Million another late November venture to Penn for the Fabulous Strike, which is again his only scheduled start on the dirt.

“With a little more luck, he probably could have won all three of those turf races in Pennsylvania last year,” Leatherbury said. “He got carried extremely wide on the far turn in the Governor’s Cup, almost to the outer rail. He raced good in both starts at Parx, so maybe this year he’ll get lucky up there and get them both.”

These days, you can’t talk about Leatherbury without mentioning two things: Ben’s Cat, and the richly deserved Hall of Fame recognition which has thus far eluded him.

The King holds court.

The King holds court.  Photo by The Racing Biz.

Once his racing days are over, Ben’s Cat seems a cinch to find a spot in the Maryland Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, which inducted an inaugural class of 12 in 2013 and added two more runners, Concern and Tuscalee, for 2014. They will be officially honored on April 3, the same night Ben’s Cat accepts a third Maryland-bred horse of the year title and two days before the talented Leatherbury homebred kicks off his 2014 season.

Despite having won more races than all but three other trainers — and registered greater purse earnings than all but 13 — Leatherbury has never made it onto the final National Racing Hall of Fame ballot. But being snubbed by the Hall of Fame committee has not soured the longtime Maryland trainer.

“I understand what it takes to get inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Leatherbury said. “They want someone who has won on a national level over many years and I haven’t done that. That’s their guidelines for getting in and I’m okay with that. I’ve won so many awards over the years, I can’t complain. I’ve had a great career and I’m still winning races and having fun watching Ben’s Cat run. A lot of the guys I grew up with in the business are gone, but I’m still doing what I love every day.”

(Featured image, of Ben’s Cat winning the 2013 Jim McKay, by Laurie Asseo.)