Witty seeks Ben’s Cat breakthrough

Witty, a two-time dirt stakes winner bred, owned and trained by Elizabeth Merryman that has run second in three consecutive turf stakes, looks to make a breakthrough in Saturday’s $75,000 Ben’s Cat at Pimlico Race Course.

The sixth running of the Ben’s Cat, scheduled for five-furlongs on the grass, and 15th renewal of the $75,000 Shine Again for fillies and mares 3 and up which have not won an open sweepstakes sprinting six furlongs on the main track, are among six stakes worth $650,000 in purses on an 11-race program headlined by the $200,000 Baltimore-Washington International Turf Cup (G3).

Also scheduled for the grass is the $100,000 All Along for fillies and mares 3 and older going 1 1/8 miles, joined by two other six-furlong dirt sprints – the $100,000 Lite the Fuse for 3-year-olds and up and $100,000 Weather Vane for 3-year-old fillies.

First race post time is 12:25 p.m.

A gelded 4-year-old son of Great Notion, Maryland’s leading sire for five consecutive years (2018-22), Witty began his career in the fall of 2021 with one win from two starts for Merryman before her son, McLane Hendriks, took over training. Witty rattled off victories in the 2021 Pennsylvania Nursery and 2022 Star de Naskra, the latter at Laurel Park, before getting four months off ahead of a seventh in the Penn Mile (G2), his grass debut.

Witty went back to the dirt for six more starts including a win in the 2022 Stanton at Delaware Park and a second in the Jersey Shore at Monmouth Park, both sprinting six furlongs, until the decision was made to give turf another try.

“He always handled the dirt really well, but we decided we should maybe give him a crack at turf with his pedigree and everything. He did seem to improve numbers-wise on turf,” Merryman said. “I’m not sure there’s a huge difference between turf and dirt for him but he’s a great big horse and I was kind of hoping the turf would be a little easier on him and better for his longevity, so that’s one of the reasons for the swap.”


Out of the Congrats mare Zeezee Zoomzoom, Witty is a younger half-brother to 2022 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) winner Caravel, a $1.9 million earner also bred and formerly owned and trained by Merryman. Back on grass, Witty overcame a slow start to be second in the six-furlong Laurel Dash July 2, two lengths behind Fore Harp but 2 ½ ahead of favored Mid Day Image.

Following another belated start, Witty came within a half-length of winning the 5 ½-furlong Wolf Hill July 22 at Monmouth and then fell a head shy as the favorite in the five-furlong Marshall Jenney Handicap Aug. 21 at Parx in his most recent effort.

“He’s really run super lately. He hit a bad spot on the turf at Parx and it kind of took a few strides to get his footing back, and probably cost him the race. Plus, he gave the winner quite a few pounds,” Merryman said. “He goes out there every time and tries his hardest, and always rewards me with a big effort. He’s very honest. His only thing is he tends to break a little bit slow and come from off of it, so hopefully with the big field at Pimlico that’s going to work out going the five-eighths.”

Witty was an easy winner in Laurel’s 2022 Spectacular Bid Stakes. Photo by Jim McCue.

Overall, Witty has finished first or second in 11 of 16 starts with four wins and $364,460 in purse earnings. Jockey Jevian Toledo gets the call from Post 7 in a field of 10.

“He’s just a tough, cool horse that can do anything you ask him to, so we figured we’d switch gears and let him try the turf a few times,” Merryman said. “Being a half to Caravel was a good enough reason in itself. She’s beaten the boys and is pretty spectacular. She’s been something else. His mother and all the siblings have much preferred turf. He’s in good form. With these kind of turf races, you just never know how the trip is going to work out.”

Witty is the 9-5 morning line favorite.

A pair of horses trained by Mike Trombetta for his own R. D. M. Racing Stable and R. Larry Johnson are among the major contenders looking to defeat Witty. Sky’s Not Falling (5-2) won last year’s Maryland Million Turf Sprint to highlight an abbreviated campaign and has a win from seven starts this year. In all he has six wins and over $340,000 from 25 career outings. Paco Lopez is named.

Matta (6-1) has been stakes-placed twice in his 19-race career and most recently was fourth in an allowance at Colonial Downs. Johan Rosado.

Trombetta and Johnson were the leading trainer and owner, respectively, at the just-completed Colonial Downs meet. Trombetta finished with 19 wins at the 27-day meet, seven more than any other trainer, and over $1.1 million in earnings. Johnson won nine races by himself, most of any owner, and three more in partnership with others.