Chris Welker spent the morning sitting under a tree in a daytime paddock watching Ben's Cat settle into his new home on a breezy June 29 at Spring Ridge Farm near Versailles, Ky. She considered pinching herself, but didn't want to spoil the tranquility.
"I never thought this day would really happen," Welker said, as she admired Ben's Cat relaxing, surrounded by rolling hills of green grass occasionally divided by dark fences or a one-lane drive.
Welker and husband Bayne Welker, vice president of sales at Fasig-Tipton, own the successful commercial breeding farm Spring Ridge. As Ben's Cat settled in with friendly 14-year-old gelding Festus, recently pensioned mare Princess Birdeye moved to the edge of her paddock and stared between trees to assess the new arrival.
Princess Birdeye has produced three foals who have sold for six figures, which Chris Welker said has helped put the farm in good standing and allows her to work with horses in new careers. She developed off-track Thoroughbred Pickin N Singin into a champion hunter at the Upperville Horse Show.
Welker plans to eventually ride Ben's Cat but will first give the four-time Maryland Horse of the Year time to adjust to his new surroundings.
For Welker, Thursday morning got started when Ben's Cat arrived at nearby KESMARC as a tractor trailer will not fit well at Spring Ridge. Welker took her trailer to KESMARC, along with gelding Festus—who she notes gets along with every horse—to pick up Ben's Cat at 9:15 a.m. They then made the 10-minute journey to the farm and Ben's Cat and Festus would soon settle into the closest paddock to the barn.
In all it was an 11-hour journey for Ben's Cat, who left Laurel Park and owner-breeder-trainer King Leatherbury around 10:15 p.m. June 28.
At Spring Ridge, Ben's Cat is currently in a small paddock until Welker is confident he can handle the nearby larger paddocks.
Ben's Cat and Festus, a pair of geldings who combined for 33 wins, get along well together. On Thursday, the 11-year-old dark bay gelding, who accounted for 32 of those victories, was content to follow around the 14-year-old one-time winner.
Easing a transition for an off-track Thoroughbred is something Welker has done numerous times and she's looking forward to the routine of working with Ben's Cat. It's the process of acquiring Ben's Cat for his post-racing career that has been anything but routine.
About five years ago, Ben's Cat began to forge a place in Welker's heart and she made a point to never miss a broadcast of one of his races. That passion eventually led to her making trips to Maryland to see the eventual 26-time stakes winner compete in person.
Mutual friend Georganne Hale, the Maryland Jockey Club director of racing and racing secretary, helped Welker meet Leatherbury. In January 2015, Welker wrote a letter to the Racing Hall of Fame trainer expressing interest in providing a post-racing career home for Ben's Cat.
"About 2 1/2 years ago I thought there's nothing more in this world I would like to do than to do something for that horse," Welker said. "We're fortunate to be in a financial position where I could offer him a retirement home—I doubted it would happen—but I could offer it."
Hale hand-delivered that letter to Leatherbury, who responded by phone to Welker the same day he received it. Welker was invited by Leatherbury to join post-race winner's circle photos with Ben's Cat. And, Welker attended the trainer's 2015 Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"He would always tell me when he would see me that I was at the top of the list, but I kind of thought, 'Yeah right,'" said Welker, who wrote another letter to Leatherbury last year letting him know she was still interested. "I think the first phrase in that letter was, 'I don't want to make a pest out of myself.'
"On the evening of June 26 he called me and said, 'This is the call you've been waiting for for two years,'" Welker continued, then, laughing at how much she has thought about this horse and noted that she responded, "I said, 'Yes, actually I've been waiting 2 1/2 years.'"
Welker laughs at her own passion for Ben's Cat, noting that in recent years she has kept photos of the star sprinter near her bed that sometimes were on the receiving end of conversation.
"I never let anybody see me, but I would always talk to those pictures and say, 'Ben, I'm doing everything I can. I'm trying.' I'd say that to the picture," Welker said.
On Thursday Welker marveled at seeing Ben's Cat in his impressive flesh at Spring Ridge.
"He's unbelievable. You should see how he looks. It's amazing for a horse who has done what he's done," Welker said. "He's out there with a horse who is big and fat and been retired for a long time; he looks just as good as that horse does. He ran five days ago. It's just amazing how he looks. That's a testament to the care he's had."
She is equally impressed with the intelligence of the son of Parker's Storm Cat.
"When I picked him up this morning and put him on the trailer, his head was up. I think he thought maybe he was going to go race," Welker said. "But once we arrived here, he knew there wasn't going to be a race. He's taking it all in."
Spring Ridge is now home for six geldings. Welker is looking forward to seeing what Ben's Cat enjoys. She plans to try him at trail riding and may fiddle with him in a show ring. He'll be kept busy on some level.
"He doesn't have to have a career; he's already had a career," Welker said. "But he's not just going to sit in a field. He's sound; he's healthy. He'd like to do something."