by Ted Black
After watching Ben’s Cat finish a disappointing seventh in the latest edition of the $200,000 Fabulous Strike Stakes at Penn National on the night before Thanksgiving, owner-breeder-trainer King T. Leatherbury pondered what might have caused the three-time defending champion of that event to deliver such a dull effort.
In the weeks since, Leatherbury, inducted into the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga in August, looked for a genuine excuse for the nine-year-old Parker’s Storm Cat gelding to deliver a dull performance but admitted that he could not find one. Eventually, he chalked it up to a minor incident early in the race.
“He got bumped a little bit down the backside and then after that he just didn’t fire,” Leatherbury said on Saturday afternoon, tucked in a private sanctuary on the second floor of the Laurel Park clubhouse. “Once he gets bumped, he doesn’t like to try after something like that. You know, it was definitely disappointing. But he didn’t bleed [through Lasix], and he came out of it okay. He hasn’t worked since then, but I’ve been walking him more frequently in the shed row.”
In each of the past three years, Ben’s Cat has concluded his campaign with a victory at Penn National in the Fabulous Strike. But Leatherbury said Saturday that his durable, talented homebred, who already sports 30 wins and earnings of nearly $2.5 million from 53 career tries, may actually make one more start this year before being turned out. His last outing could be the $100,000 Dave’s Friend Stakes at Laurel Park on December 26, named for another prominent and long-lasting Maryland-bred sprinter. Dave’s Friend, whose best years came from 1980-1983, won 35 races in his career and more than $1 million.
“I will probably make a decision on Tuesday or Wednesday,” Leatherbury said. “He’s going to the track to gallop again both days and I will see how well he comes out of them. If he looks good, then I will begin training him up to the race. If he doesn’t appear right, then I will turn him out to the farm [in Virginia] and give him a break and then look to bring him back next year. He might make one more start, but even if he doesn’t, he will race again next year.”
Ben’s Cat won eight of nine starts and earned over $210,000 at age four in 2010, and he garnered Maryland-bred horse of the year honors 2011-14 following exceptional campaigns in which he earned more than $450,000 and won at least four races each season.
By comparison, Ben’s Cat collected only two victories and banked just over $170,000 from eight starts thus far in 2015, and his dull effort in the Fabulous Strike suggests that Father Time may finally be catching him. In fact, many in the “twitterverse” called for Ben’s retirement following the Fabulous Strike.
Leatherbury admitted having no idea that such comments existed, adding that he recently got a ticket for texting while driving although his cell phone does not enable him to send or receive text messages. In fact, he had been reading the entry sheet at the time he was pulled over.
“I know that this horse has a big following,” Leatherbury said. “He’s a very, very popular horse. There’s one woman who has been sending him horse cookies for years. They’re like $35 each and they’re big. The other horses in the barn eat them up. He’ll eat one occasionally, but we were reluctant to give them to him at first because we didn’t know if someone was trying to sabotage the horse. After he comes back next year, if it looks like he can’t compete in stakes races anymore, then I’ll retire him. I won’t put him in cheap claimers because then people will ask what I’m doing and how could I do that to a horse that made over $2 million for me.”
Though 2015 has been the worst year of Ben’s Cat’s career, he hasn’t been far from another memorable campaign. Two of his defeats — in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup and the Maryland Million Sprint — were by a nose each.
Leatherbury said he has already been approached about finding a permanent retirement home for Ben’s Cat by someone in Maryland and another person in Kentucky, although he expects the durable gelding to find a final home in Maryland. After he retires, Ben’s Cat will likely have a race named for him. But Leatherbury did not want to peer too far into the future, especially with Ben’s Cat possibly pointing for one last start this year and even another stakes-filled campaign at age 10 in 2016.
“He has really been an amazing horse to be around,” Leatherbury said. “He’s won the Mister Diz six straight years, which is almost unheard of anymore these days. He’s done well at Parx and he’s run well on Maryland Million Day. It will be nice to see one of the tracks name a race for him. He’s definitely earned it… Every once in a while you get a horse like him, but they’re obviously few and far between.”