By Maryland Jockey Club publicity
Wearing a bright orange shirt and helmet cover, Elizabeth Eckert went about her business as an exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury the morning of July 19 with a heavy heart.
It was only the evening before that Eckert, who has worked for Leatherbury at Laurel Park since December, had heard the news about Ben's Cat, the recently retired Mid-Atlantic legend who was euthanized July 18 as a result of complications from colic surgery at the age of 11.
She drove to work in her dark blue 1992 Chevrolet Z-28 adorned with tributes to Ben's Cat. "R.I.P. Big Ben" was written across her windshield. Her side windows read, "The Cat!" while on the back window she wrote, "The Beast from the East. Rest Easy."
Naturally, the lettering was done in orange to match the silks of Leatherbury's The Jim Stable, for whom Ben's Cat ran his entire 63-race career that included 32 wins, 26 stakes wins, and more than $2.6 million in purse earnings.
"Ben was an incredible horse. I was honored to ride him," Eckert said. "He taught me how to better listen to my horses underneath me. To hear what was going on [with him] broke my heart. Even though I only knew him a short time, I loved him like I knew him my whole life.
"The Leatherbury team took great care of him when he was here, and I gave him all my effort every ride," she added. "I am happy to stand here today and say I was able to ride the beast of the east, Maryland's great Ben's Cat."
Leatherbury, 84, bred, owned, and trained Ben's Cat, retiring the four-time Maryland Horse of the Year on June 27 just three days after finishing ninth by 4 1/2 lengths in the Mister Diz—a stakes the gelded son of Parker's Storm Cat had won six straight years from 2010-15. He was sent to the Versailles, Ky. farm of Bayne and Chris Welker June 28 but developed colic that required surgery July 6 at the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, where he was euthanized July 18 due to post-operative complications.
"I was devastated. We thought he was going to be all right," Leatherbury said. "I thought he'd pull through, being Ben's Cat. He's used to winning, you know? To get that call saying he had gotten worse and they had to put him down, it broke my heart. I thought he would do it.
"It was a tragic ending to a magnificent horse," he added. "Many times in a race I didn't think he'd win and then he got up. I thought he was going to pull another one off, surviving, and he didn't. It is a horrible thing for me and for all of his fans and for the horse, of course. It's a shame."
Ben's Cat had his Mister Diz streak broken Aug. 20, 2016 by the unheralded John Jones, a 43-1 longshot racing first time off a $25,000 claim for trainer Lacey Gaudet, whose family has long been synonymous with Maryland racing.
"When John Jones won the Mister Diz, I wasn't paying attention to the fact that I had just claimed this horse for $25,000 and he won a stake and it was my first stakes winner as a trainer. It was, 'We just beat Ben's Cat,'" Gaudet said. "You never wanted to see a horse like that get beat and even when it was you, it was overshadowed.
"Every morning you'd go to the racetrack and you'd see him sitting there for 15 or 20 minutes before he got going. For a long time Doug Leatherman was on him and every morning people would jog by and say, 'Morning Doug. Morning Ben.' It was like you always knew he was going to be there," she added. "I cried when I found out. It's just sad."
Ben's Cat had only six different riders through his lengthy career, but it was Julian Pimentel that got on him more than anyone. Pimentel was aboard in 41 of 63 starts, including 30 in a row from June 2012 to November 2015.
Together, Pimentel and Ben's Cat won 22 races, 17 of them in stakes, topped by the 2013 and 2014 Parx Dash (G3), 2012 Turf Monster (G3), 2012 Maryland Million Turf Sprint, 2013-15 Mister Diz and Jim McKay Turf Sprint, and 2012-14 Fabulous Strike Handicap.
"At the beginning of his career he was a little difficult in the mornings to train and stuff like that. He was like a student with a lot of growing pains," Pimentel said. "But as he got older, he was just very cool. He knew what he was supposed to do. You look at his record and he'd win by a head or a nose—it was like he knew where the wire was.
"He could run pretty much on anything. He won on the slop, he won going short, he won going a mile," he added. "Going long wasn't his favorite distance but he did that a couple of times. He liked turf, dirt, the slop, it didn't much matter to him. I think he would run on concrete. He was just unbelievable."
Ben's Cat's last two victories came to start his 10-year-old season, taking an open 5 1/2-furlong allowance last May before his fifth triumph in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint. The closest he came to winning after that was in his 11-year-old debut, finishing fifth by less than a length in an April 16 allowance.
"At the Preakness this year, Todd Pletcher said to me that other than the horses he trains himself, of course, Ben was his favorite horse of all time," Leatherbury said. "The thing is, you have good horses come along all the time but they don't last. For him to last is where he created that 'People's Horse' thing.
"A lot of horses are so good that they retire because of their value in the breeding industry, and others have problems that knock them out early. They run a couple years and that's it," he added. "But Ben, year after year after year he'd come back and that's why he got that reputation. It is a sad end to the great Ben's Cat."