“End of an era” as Ben’s Cat, “Maryland’s horse,” is retired
by Frank Vespe
“End of an era,” King Leatherbury said when reached by phone this afternoon.
For most of the last eight racing seasons, you could set your watch by Ben’s Cat. He’d make his season debut in early April. He’d run in — and usually win — the Jim McKay Turf Sprint on Preakness weekend at Pimlico.
He’d terrorize the East Coast turf sprinting division over the ensuing months and then, to top it off, run in — and usually win — the Fabulous Strike, a six-furlong dirt sprint held on Thanksgiving eve at Penn National.
But today, Leatherbury said, it was time: Ben’s Cat, 11 years old, is retired.
The sheer numbers are impressive enough. Ben’s Cat, a homebred Parker’s Storm Cat gelding for Leatherbury, won 32 times in a 63-race career. He earned $2,643,782. He won at least one stake in seven consecutive years.
He won the Mister Diz Stakes, a Maryland-bred fixture, six times. He won the Jim McKay Turf Sprint five times. He won four graded events, and took the Maryland Million Turf Sprint three times — until Maryland Million, Ltd. eliminated it — and the Fabulous Strike three more.
He didn’t make his racing debut until he was four, courtesy of a fractured pelvis. But after that, he was sound as the pound, racing between seven and 11 times each year from 2010 through 2016.
He won the first eight races of his career and became so accustomed to returning to the test barn that when he finally did lose, “The groom had to straighten him out and turn him left to come back to our barn,” rather than right, towards the test barn, Leatherbury said.
And in between, Leatherbury said, Ben’s Cat was “absolutely” a major factor in the trainer’s election, in 2015, to racing’s Hall of Fame.
“The excuse was years ago that Leatherbury wins a lot of races, but he doesn’t perform at the top levels,” the trainer, now 84, said. “That was true, but I had to deal with the horses that I had. But Ben’s Cat did perform at that level.”
In 2011, Ben’s Cat, at the time a spry young five-year-old, won six stakes races, the most important of which was the Grade 3 Turf Monster at Parx Racing. That race was a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, granting automatic entry to the winner. Except for one minor detail: Leatherbury did not generally nominate his horses to the Breeders’ Cup and had not done so with Ben’s Cat. To run in the big race, he would have had to supplement him in for a cool $100,000.
He said that he tried to construct a group of people to come up with the money. Nearing crunch time, he had a three-person group put together, himself and two others, each willing to put up a third. But then one of the three backed out. The effort fell apart.
“I do regret that, but it was my own call,” Leatherbury said today. “That year my numbers that I was running were very much competitive (with the best turf sprinters). He definitely would have been in the money.”
Of course, Leatherbury couldn’t have known at the time just how long Ben’s Cat would remain good, which might have tilted the balance. Ben’s Cat won the Turf Monster again the next year and took the Grade 3 Parx Dash in 2013 and 2014.
Indeed, up through his first two starts of 2016, the big dark bay remained an imposing presence. He rallied determinedly to win an allowance at Laurel to kick off his 2016 season and followed that up with a triumph that Leatherbury says might be his favorite of all: his win in the 2016 Jim McKay Turf Sprint at Pimlico.
“I’ve had people come to me who’ve been racing fans for years and years and said that was the most exciting race they’ve ever seen,” the trainer said. “I get chills just listening to the replay. You’re thinking he can’t win. He splits horses. I’m thinking maybe I can be third. Next thing you know, here he comes. That’s got to be the most incredible race.”
Ben’s Cat saved ground around the turn that day and found himself in fourth, with seemingly nowhere to go late in the race. Then a hole opened up between horses.
“He just shot through that hole, like, ‘Hang on, kid!'” his jockey that day, Trevor McCarthy, said this afternoon.
As he returned to the winner’s circle that day, McCarthy basked in the chance to ride the state’s most popular horse in one of its biggest races. “Just the amount of people that were yelling and screaming his name,” he recalled. “I thought I won the Preakness that day.”
That would turn out to be the final win of Ben’s Cat’s career. He finished third in each of his next three races and then was off the board in five straight to end his career. Saturday, he finished ninth in the Mister Diz.
As it always does, time won.
“He just exemplified grittiness and consistency,” said Gary Quill, a fan of Maryland racing for some 50 years who writes The GQ Approach on this website. “I think that’s what people came to appreciate is he showed up every race. There’s never been a horse in my memory that for as long as he did it, he kept on winning at a high level.”
McCarthy, who is on the mend from shoulder and pinkie injuries and will visit the doctor Wednesday for a two-week checkup on his shoulder, said it was “awesome” having the opportunity to ride Ben’s Cat.
“When I got the call to start riding him, I was super-excited,” McCarthy said. “He’s made so much money, won so many big races — he was Maryland’s horse.”
For Leatherbury, too, the retirement of Ben’s Cat may be the end of an era. His operation — once the nation’s winningest — is down to just 14 horses. He continues to win races — seven from 43 starts so far this year — but the 95 starts his runners made in ’16 are just one-third of what his barn ran as recently as 2013.
Of course, hope springs eternal. One of the members of that small operation is Out of Juice, the last horse Leatherbury bred. The three-year-old daughter of Street Magician is closely related to Ben’s Cat; his dam, Twofox, and her maternal granddam, Endette, were full sisters.
Prior to the Mister Diz, Leatherbury had said that, if Ben’s Cat hit the board, that would likely be enough to keep going with him. If not, he intimated, that would be the end. And today he lived up to that.
“I’m sad, but he’s going to have a good life,” Leatherbury said of Ben’s Cat. Leatherbury said that Maryland Jockey Club officials have expressed interest in holding a day to honor the gelding. He will remain in Leatherbury’s Laurel Park barn until then, at which point he’ll head to Kentucky, where a farm has been hoping to get him for some time.
“When he goes to the farm,” Leatherbury added, “it will be for the rest of his life.”