For King Leatherbury, Ben's Cat's final stakes win will always be the memory that's front and center; the day the dark bay gelding seemingly did the impossible.
Leatherbury, the breeder, owner, and trainer of Maryland-bred Ben's Cat, decided this week that the 11-year-old gelding—a 26-time stakes winner—had given his all on the track. Racing Hall of Famer Leatherbury said the son of Parker's Storm Cat will be retired to the Versailles, Ky. farm of Chris Welker, a fan of the horse and wife of Fasig-Tipton vice president of sales Bayne Welker.
While Ben's Cat's racing days are over after he failed to place in his three starts this season, there will be plenty of memories for fans and Leatherbury, who immediately flashes to last year's Jim McKay Turf Sprint Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
In that race Ben's Cat reached the quarter pole of the five-furlong test 6 1/2 lengths behind four-length leader Rocket Heat and three other rivals. Ben's Cat began to rally along the rail and at the sixteenth pole jockey Trevor McCarthy edged out the game 10-year-old, who then closed determinedly and surged between Spring to the Sky and Rocket Heat to claim victory by a neck.
"At no time in the race did he look like he was going to win," Leatherbury said. "He hits the top of the stretch and I'm just hoping for third money. And the next thing you know, he splits horses and sticks his nose out right at the wire. I get chills when I hear the replay of it."
As Ben's Cat completed his improbable comeback, track announcer Dave Rodman shouted, "Here comes the Cat, the Cat surges through," and Ben's Cat won the Jim McKay Turf Sprint for the fifth time.
"That was the most exciting race," Leatherbury said. "I've had so many racing fans—older, experienced racing fans—tell me that that was the most exciting race they've seen."
That memory tops a long list for Leatherbury and fans of Ben's Cat, who won the Mister Diz Stakes six years in a row from 2010-2015. He won the Parx Dash Handicap each year from 2012-2014, the latter two editions carrying grade 3 status. His other two graded stakes wins came in the Turf Monster Handicap (G3T) in 2011 and 2012 at Parx Racing.
Ben's Cat also shined on Maryland Million day, taking that event's Turf Sprint Handicap each year from 2010-2012. And he won back-to-back editions of the Fabulous Strike Handicap on the main track at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in 2013 and 2014. He set a course record for five furlongs in :54.96 in winning the 2012 Parx Dash under Julian Pimentel.
Bred by Leatherbury and owned by his The Jim Stable, Ben's Cat is out of theThirty Eight Paces mare Twofox and is the only horse to be named Maryland-bred Horse of the Year four times, earning that honor each year from 2011-2014.
Unraced until his 4-year-old season, Ben's Cat piled up accomplishments with a record of 32-9-7 from 63 starts and earnings of more than $2.6 million, drawing more fans with each start.
Eliza McGraw, racing author and fan, has seen that powerful connection first hand.
"I've seen Ben's Cat at Laurel Park a bunch of times. When King Leatherbury brings him out, people's response is just transformational. They cheer for him, they rush to the paddock, which is little at Laurel, but you run down there and stand at the gate with people," McGraw said. "The way they wait to see him; it's a really major connection with racing for people here in Maryland."
Leatherbury recalls the celebration after last year's Jim McKay win on the day before the Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico.
"When he came into the winner's circle after that race, you'd have thought he was the Preakness winner," Leatherbury said. "That's how fans were cheering him.
"It is the end of an era," Leatherbury said. "I've said it and everyone's been saying it to me."
Leatherbury said he was a bit surprised that Ben's Cat couldn't keep the victories coming this season.
"I feel like he was worth trying this year because he was good and sound, and he was training well," Leatherbury said. "He had a couple of races where he really had excuses, but the fact is he wasn't getting anything and you have to draw the line somewhere."
The trainer believes Ben's Cat will enjoy his retirement.
"I'm sure he'll be well-loved there," Leatherbury said. "If I go to Kentucky, I'll certainly go visit him. It'll be sad not to see him every day. He gets along so well with people and other horses. He'll enjoy himself."