The Main Track: Emotional Farewell to $2.6-million War Horse

Gallant Maryland-bred Ben’s Cat, above in 2015, became a hero by winning 26 stakes races during an eight-year career. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.                  

Each Tuesday in this space we will spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing a story that will stand out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it will generate.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

As for this week, we’ll look back at the day when a state bid a sad farewell to its favorite son.

There were six stakes contested at Laurel Park on Saturday with a combined value of $575,000 – and an equal amount of tears for the beloved Ben’s Cat.

It was a day that mixed the heartache of losing a great racehorse and joyous memories of an incomparable racing career as Laurel celebrated Ben’s Cat Day with a stakes-filled card and an emotionally charged ceremony between races that followed a morning ceremony in which the ashes of the four-time Maryland Horse of the Year were laid to rest near the track’s paddock.

“It was a very emotional day,” King Leatherbury, a member of racing’s Hall of Fame who bred, owned, and trained Ben’s Cat, said on Monday evening. “There were a lot of people there and the track did a super job with the ceremony. There were so many tears.”

Ben's Cat winning 2011 Jim McKay Turf Sprint. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Complete with a bobblehead and poster giveaway, the day was a fitting tribute to Ben’s Cat, the gallant Maryland-bred who became a hero in not just his home state but in all corners of the industry during a career that spanned 63 starts from 2010 through 2017. He won 32 races in his career, 26 of them in stakes, for Leatherbury’s The Jim Stable and earned $2,643,782. He never won anything above a Grade 3 stakes, yet his consistency and longevity made him a fan favorite as the years – and victories – went by. The grand gelding won the Mister Diz Stakes six straight times and the Jim McKay Turf Sprint in five out of six years as he became synonymous with racing in the Old Line State.

“There are a lot of super horses, but why Ben’s Cat was so popular is that he lasted so long. Most good horses are flashes in the pan. They might make $5 million in a year but then they are gone at the end of it. He kept coming back and back and back, winning the same race, which is such an incredible feat,” Leatherbury said. “To win the same race five times is remarkable. Most horses are not even around at 5 years old. That’s why there was such great fan support.”

An Unforgettable Performance

The 2016 Jim McKay Turf Sprint was a race that encapsulated all of Ben’s Cat qualities and charisma.

Ben's Cat (Eclipse Sportswire)
At the advanced age of 10 on Black-Eyed Susan Stakes day at Pimlico, he faced seven rivals that included the 4-5 favorite Rocket Heat, who was coming off a victory in the Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint Stakes at Churchill Downs.

At the eighth pole, it seemed as if it would not be Ben’s Cat’s day as he was third along the rail and Rocket Heat was cruising along with a 2 ½-length lead. Then in that final eighth of a mile, all of the courage and class in the gelding surged to the fore as he accelerated like a horse half his age and he registered a neck victory in what may be the most fondly remembered race of Preakness weekend 2016.

“It was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen,” Leatherbury said.

In a way, it was rather fitting that the 2016 Jim McKay proved to be Ben Cat’s final victory. He raced eight times after that, with a trio of thirds his best finishes. After finishing eighth in the 2017 Jim McKay and ninth in the Mister Diz, he was retired and given a new and comfortable home at Spring Ridge Farm in Kentucky.

Cruel Twist of Fate 

Less than a month after his retirement from the racetrack, Ben’s Cat came down with colic and died on July 18 as a result of complications from surgery.

Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury bids farewell. (Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club)

“He was a magnificent animal, a super racehorse, and very intelligent,” Leatherbury said. “After going through racing for so many years and surviving all of the things that can happen on a racetrack, that he was turned out in such a great place to enjoy himself and met such a tragic end was very sad.”

Magnificent, indeed, and Saturday was the kind of day Ben’s Cat deserved, with fans, horsemen, track officials, and five of the six jockeys who rode him in his victorious races (Horatio Karamanos, Trevor McCarthy, Rosemary Homeister Jr., Jeremy Rose, and Julian Pimentel) there to honor him.

It was a memorable day that had such an appropriate footnote to it.

In Laurel’s 4th race, immediately after the afternoon ceremonies for Ben’s Cat, the winner was Classic Wildcat, an 11-year-old gelding who is trained and owned by, yes, Leatherbury for his The Jim Stable and wore the same orange and white silks as Ben’s Cat.

Whatever happens in the final month and a half of this year, it’s difficult to imagine 2017 producing a more fitting result than that.


Here’s some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

Romans breaks Churchill Downs record for most wins

Greyvitos speeds to 19-1 upset in Bob Hope Stakes

Mr. Misunderstood wins Commonwealth Turf

Spring Quality kicks in for Red Smith score

Per-start credit program set for Aqueduct winter meet

The unsolved mystery of Arrogate

Breeders’ Cup completes comprehensive testing program

Songbird carries a $9.5 million tune at Fasig-Tipton

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