King and the Cat: The Pride of Maryland

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Ben’s Cat | MJC/Jim McCue

When King T. Leatherbury was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame last month, the honor was viewed as overdue recognition for a blue-collar horseman whose dominance and longevity on the Maryland circuit could be directly traced to more than a half-century of shrewd moves at the claiming box.

That’s why it might come as a surprise to learn that the best horse the 82-year-old conditioner said he’s ever trained–the 9-year-old Ben’s Cat (Parker’s Storm Cat), a turf sprint specialist with 30 lifetime wins–is a Leatherbury homebred.

Despite 25 stakes wins, $2.46 million in earnings, and a course record to his credit (five furlongs on the Parx turf in :54.96), the stout-hearted gelding is not well known outside the mid-Atlantic circuit.

“He’s every bit of a real good classy horse,” said Leatherbury. “He’s very well-behaved, but he knows he’s a big shot.”

Even when Ben’s Cat recently surpassed a streak of durability established by the mighty Kelso, the feat did not get much mention in the racing press.

On Aug. 22 at Laurel Park, Ben’s Cat won the $60,000 Mister Diz S. The victory was significant because it was the sixth consecutive year the gelding won that stakes race. He has scored in every edition of the Mister Diz since 2010, a remarkable accomplishment that is not diminished by the black-type race’s restriction to Maryland-breds.

Although statistics for winning the same stakes race in consecutive years are not well documented, the record was believed to be held by Exterminator (four straight Saratoga Cups 1919-22) before Kelso scored in every Jockey Club Gold Cup between 1960 and 1964.

Leaping Plum, a Nebraska-based gelding, appears to be the only horse to win the annual renewal of a stakes race seven consecutive times. He romped in the Grasmick H., a four-furlong dash held during the early winter part of the Fonner Park season, every year between 1995 and 2001.

“I thought I had a record, but not quite yet,” Leatherbury told TDN. “As long as he’s doing fine, we’ll go after it next year.”

For Leatherbury, a lack of national recognition is not a problem. He said it’s trumped by the strong support the gelding receives from the locals.

“My big horse has got tremendous fans,” Leatherbury said. “One reason is he’s been around so long. Most horses are a flash in the pan, and just when people start to like them, they disappear from the scene. But he comes back year after year, so his fans are able to share in his success.”

Leatherbury said Ben’s Cat even has one admirer who twice this summer has sent big plastic tubs of “high end horse cookies” to share with his stablemates.

Another reason railbirds are attracted to Ben’s Cat is his uncanny knack for winning via tight photo finishes, even when he looks hopelessly beaten a furlong out. Thirteen of his 30 lifetime victories have been decided by margins of less than a length.

“I like to say this proves excitement doesn’t weaken your health,” Leatherbury deadpanned.

In many ways the hometown hoopla for Ben’s Cat mirrors the pride Maryland racing fans feel for Leatherbury. They know their King more as the plainspoken gentleman trainer who has won 52 training titles at Pimlico and Laurel than as North America’s fourth all-time winningest trainer (6,460 wins).

According the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, Ben’s Cat has racked up four state Horse of the Year titles and 17 divisional championships (older male, turf horse and sprinter). Those accomplishments are even more remarkable considering the gelding suffered a fractured pelvis late in his 2-year-old season that kept him from debuting until age 4, and that Leatherbury felt so ambivalent about him early on that he started Ben’s Cat for a claiming tag in his first two races.

“We didn’t think he was anything special,” Leatherbury rationalized. “I actually ran him for $20,000 and $25,000 claimers. At that time, we didn’t think he was any kind of a decent horse. But once he won eight races in a row, then we knew we had something,” Leatherbury said.

Leatherbury explained how an experimental foray into the breeding business more than three decades ago eventually produced Ben’s Cat.

In 1982, when he was riding high as Maryland’s top claiming conditioner, Leatherbury said he decided to apply the same “shotgun approach” that was netting him winners at the claiming box to trying to acquire quality broodmares at auctions.

Along with several partners, he bought an in-foal broodmare named Dronette at a Timonium sale for $57,000. Leatherbury said she had “one foot set out horribly, almost like a 45-degree angle, it was that bad. There was no way in the world that she would ever have raced, but she had such good bloodlines” (by Drone out of a Pago Pago mare).

Dronette’s first foal was stakes-placed, and Leatherbury said “everything she produced went on to be a good producer. She was just a good foundation broodmare. It was almost kind of a luck thing that we were buying.”

Several years later, when the clients in that partnership decided to go separate ways and divided up their horses, Leatherbury ended up with Dronette.

Dronette eventually foaled Endette, a filly who never won but later produced Ah Day, a GIII winner who Leatherbury now refers to as his “second-best horse.” In 1993, Dronette foaled the stakes-placed filly Twofox. When bred to Parker’s Storm Cat, Twofox produced Ben’s Cat in 2006.

Leatherbury explained that Ben’s Cat’s pelvis fracture was the result of the stress of training. He gave the gelding stall rest for six months “and the rest is history.”

After winning his first eight races, Ben’s Cat tasted his first defeat against stakes company at Aqueduct. With the exception of one other Grade III trip to Belmont Park in 2014 and two races at Delaware Park in 2010, Leatherbury has kept him on the Maryland/

Pennsylvania circuit. The gelding owns four Grade III wins, all at Parx, two each in the Turf Monster H. and Parx Dash.

“I think what benefited him is the fact that he did not run early in life, so he had time to mature,” Leatherbury said. “A horse doesn’t fully mature until he’s five years old anyway. So this gave him a chance for everything to set up nicely, and it’s helped him last long. He’s got good conformation too, which keeps him sound. He’s reached his peak and he’s holding it well.”

Leatherbury credits consistency under the shed row with keeping Ben’s Cat in form. He said the gelding has had the same exercise rider, Doug Leatherman, [note: yes, the last names are similar, but different] since before his racing debut.

“Doug claims he just never tails off, he just feels good all the time,” Leatherbury said. “He’s a beautiful horse. He’s almost black. What keeps him from being labeled as black is one little teeny bit of white hairs. You’d almost call him the black beauty.”

Ben’s Cat has also partnered with the same jockey, Julian Pimentel, for 38 of his 50 races, including every try since June 2012.

“He’s an unbelievable horse, very fun to be around,” said Pimentel. “He’s been the same since he was four. He’s usually very calm, very quiet, but when it’s time to go to the gate, he’s all business. He wants to just run. I just let him do his thing. When they go slow, we’re up close, when they go fast, I’m going to be a bit farther back. I have to be careful though, because once he goes to the lead, he looks around a lot.”

Leatherbury said Ben’s Cat “seems really disappointed when he loses. I know people would laugh at something like that, but all my help at the barn recognizes it. He knows where the finish line is, and he knows he’s supposed to beat that horse in front of him. He just tries his best to catch whoever’s in front of him.”

Leatherbury is mulling both Monday’s $300,000 GIII Turf Monster H. at Parx and the Sept. 12 $100,000 Laurel Dash for Ben’s Cat’s next start.

“We’ll probably analyze them both, and if we can win the big one [at Parx], well go for that. And if it looks like we can’t, then we just might wait for the Laurel race,” Leatherbury said.

Leatherbury owns Ben’s Cat under the program name The Jim Stable. The name traces to an old family joke: Decades ago, his twin boys were enamored with a Sesame Street television skit in which one of the characters referred to everybody as “Jim.” So on a whim, that’s what Leatherbury wrote down on his owner’s license application.

Leatherbury is down to one broodmare now. He has 14 horses stabled at Laurel. When asked if that’s a good number of horses to train at this stage of his career, he politely bristles.

“No. I’ve got room for more,” Leatherbury replied. “My owners have died off. That’s what happens–people get old and they die. It’s not easy to pick up new owners these days.”

When asked about his big summer–the Hall of Fame induction; the success with Ben’s Cat–Leatherbury modestly deflects the attention. King prefers to let his horses do the talking.

“Yeah, I know, it’s been my last hurrah,” Leatherbury said with a chuckle before turning serious. “I was very honored to be elected. I’d like to win a few more races, that’s all.”

 

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