Laurel Park hosted a memorial service over the weekend for Ben’s Cat. “It was just like a funeral for a person,” said trainer King T. Leatherbury.
Ben’s Cat was a horse. He died of complications from colic over the summer. He was 11 years old, and just weeks before his death had quit racing and retired to the Kentucky farm of one of his biggest fans.
Leatherbury, 84, is a legend to railbirds in Maryland, and today is as beloved as any human or animal that ever frequented the state’s racetracks. Ben’s Cat gave Leatherbury the highest peaks of his six-decade career. He’s pretty sure they could have been higher.
“I have regrets, about Ben,” he said after the service.
Leatherbury won his first race when Eisenhower was president and is still at it. He had more wins than any other trainer in the country for a couple years in the 1970s, and according to Equibase, the clearinghouse for all racing stats, Leatherbury’s 6,490 career wins (in 36,040 starts) makes him the fifth winningest trainer of all time.
But he’s spent almost no time in the sport’s spotlight. Only one Kentucky Derby entry ever came out of Leatherbury’s barn: I Am The Game in the 1985 race. That horse went off as a 101-1 longshot and lived down to billing, finishing at the back of the pack, 30 lengths behind winner Spend A Buck. So after a lifetime in the sport, the only dependable trace of Leatherbury in Louisville during Triple Crown season comes on the $2 plastic beer cups that list all horses who came in dead last on the big day, with I Am The Game’s name alongside the other 143 similarly sad sacks.
But, as Leatherbury always told everybody, it was the gambling, not the racing, that got him to take up horses as a profession in the first place.
“Look, horses are fantastic animals. I appreciate them, but I also appreciate dogs and cats,” he told the Baltimore Sun when he was inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame in 2015. “It’s the game that’s the challenge.”
Which brings us back to Leatherbury’s regrets. The biggest? The two times he didn’t bet on Ben’s Cat, the horse that Leatherbury admits to everybody was the one that got him to the Hall of Fame.
The first unplaced bet came in 2006, when Ben Cat was born. On paper, Ben’s Cat wasn’t bred for success. Leatherbury owned his mother, the mare Twofox, whose career stats show just three wins in 23 starts, none of them in stakes races. His father, Parker’s Storm Cat, had only four starts and no wins before getting relegated to a breeding farm. He’d sucked as a stud to that point, also: Parker’s Storm Cat hadn’t sired a single winner when he and Twofox birthed. Hence the broodmare’s fee of $1,700, which is chicken feed in the breeding business. Parker’s Storm Cat had an uncle, named just plain Storm Cat, who billed $500,000 per fuck.
Any owner who thinks or even dreams about their newborn horse someday having glory days at the track registers the colt or filly with the Breeders’ Cup folks. That makes the horse eligible to be nominated for a start in a Breeders’ Cup race should he or she one day qualify. When Ben’s Cat was born, the fee was $500; again, an incredibly nominal outlay in the big picture. Rare is the horseman who doesn’t pony that fee up for a foal, just in case.
But Leatherbury decided he didn’t want to bet that Ben’s Cat would be a star. “His breeding didn’t suggest he’d be that quality of horse,” Leatherbury once told me of Ben’s Cat. “And I never had [Breeders’ Cup] quality of horses, really. If you have six or seven yearlings each year, and you pay the fee for all of ‘em, well, at [$500] each that adds up to pretty good money.”
That Ben’s Cat was even talked about for such a moneyed event in 2011 was quite a story in itself. It looked like Ben’s Cat wouldn’t ever get to the track, when he broke his hip as a colt before he’d ever even raced. But Leatherbury owned him, and kept him around the farm, and when doctors said the hip was healed in 2010, when he was already four years old, the trainer entered him in a $20,000 maiden claiming race. Claimers are the lowest rung on the racing ladder, where anybody at the track could have bought Ben’s Cat or any other entry and taken him home that day. These races are for prospective also-rans, not racing bluebloods or future superstars.
But Ben’s Cat won his debut, and went on to win his first eight starts. He kept moving up in company, too, and by 2011, he was in any conversation about the best sprinters in the country, even outside of Maryland. And on Labor Day that year at Parx, a Philadelphia-area track, Ben’s Cat won the $356,000 Turf Monster Handicap. The winner of that stakes race normally automatically qualifies for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, along with room and board and transportation costs for the horse and his connections. But, that prize package presupposes that the horse’s owner had plunked down the $500 registration fee at birth. Because Leatherbury didn’t make that wager, Ben’s Cat’s path to Churchill Downs, host of that year’s Breeders’ Cup Day card, wasn’t quite so clear.
The organizers of the event do have a system in place where owners of non-registered horses can get to the starting gate of a Breeders’ Cup race: They can buy eligibility. But at a great cost. As a four-year-old, the supplemental fee to get Ben’s Cat to the starting gate in the 2011 race was now up to $100,000. Quite a bit more than the $500 that would have done the trick had he paid it a few years earlier.
Of course, the possible return on even a six-figure investment was huge, given the $1 million purse and the racing immortality that goes to any horse or trainer with a Breeders’ Cup win. Any finish on the board would recoup the entry fee. And, again, expenses were paid for because of the Parx win.
Leatherbury’s Breeders’ Cup dilemma— to pay or not to pay?—was the talk of Maryland racing in the months leading up to the race. Horse racing needed stars, and this incredibly organic rags to riches tale would have given the sport a tale made for Hollywood. Leatherbury considered fundraising options, none of which consisted of him putting up all the money. Leatherbury now says he was approached by a couple folks who said they’d pay the entry fee for him, but never came through. So he tried to put together a syndicate with three partners, including him and a jockey that would ride Ben’s Cat in the Breeders’ Cup, that would front the $100,000 in exchange for shares of whatever purse the horse brought home.
“I thought that was a good deal for the rider,” Leatherbury says, “because he shares in ownership and also gets 10 percent of the purse like any jockey.”
But, Leatherbury says, the jockey, who he did not name, pulled out. So, it came down to Leatherbury ponying up, or Ben’s Cat not running on racing’s biggest day.
This was the second bet that Leatherbury failed to place on his horse.
“That meant I was betting $100,000 on him,” he says. “I didn’t do it.”
Regally Easy, going off as a 2-1 favorite, won the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint over Country Day and Perfect Officer on the grass at Churchill Downs. Ben’s Cat had beaten every one of those horses at the same five-furlong distance in the Monster Handicap. But Ben’s Cat spent the biggest day in racing back at Laurel Park in his stall. There was no fairy tale ending.
Ben’s Cat, because of his un-regal bloodlines and the longshot he was given to succeed on the track, was gelded as a colt. That meant he had no value as a stud after racing. So Leatherbury kept racing him long after the Breeders’ Cup disappointment, and he kept winning. He became a four-time Maryland Horse of the Year winner. He retired this summer with 32 wins (including 26 stakes wins) in 63 starts, taking home more than $2.6 million. Not bad for a $1,700 stud fee. Because he’d so outperformed his bloodlines, Ben’s Cat also became the most popular horse of his generation in Maryland. But without the Breeders’ Cup on his resume, Ben’s Cat’s renown was limited to the Mid-Atlantic region.
Yet, if you ask Leatherbury, this one horse was responsible for him finally getting voted into the Racing Hall of Fame.
“That was all Ben,” he says of his 2015 induction. (Check out Leatherbury’s induction speech here. It’s worth your time.)
On June 26, Ben’s Cat finished ninth in the Mister Diz Stakes at Laurel Park, a race he had amazingly won every year from 2010 to 2015. Leatherbury decided that was enough, and shipped his heroic horse off to a Kentucky farm to live what the trainer thought would be “a life of leisure.”
“He earned it,” Leatherbury says. Then Ben’s Cat fell sick in his first week of retirement and died.
At the memorial service, held before 150 or so mourners after the third race on Saturday’s Laurel Park card, Ben’s Cat’s ashes were placed in the dirt near the paddock, not far from where he spent most of his life. Leatherbury has kept his stable at this track for more than 50 years, and though his operation is nowhere near the size it once was, he’s still in the game, and still winning mostly cheap races with mostly cheap horses. In fact, just about half an hour after Ben’s Cat was laid to rest, another 11-year-old gelding in Leatherbury’s stable, Classic Wildcat, finished first in the fourth race.
But it was those bets Leatherbury hadn’t made, and a big race one of his budget horses never got a chance to win, that the trainer was still dwelling on.
“I probably didn’t try hard enough to get Ben in [the 2011 Breeders’ Cup],” he said. “I think he would’ve won it that year, and he’d have been right there in the money for the next couple years. I wish I would have known the future a bit. That would have changed things. That’s in the past, and who knows. But, yeah, regrets.”