BALTIMORE – Yet again defying both his age and the younger competition, popular 10-year-old Maryland-bred Ben’s Cat wowed his fans once again with a thrilling neck victory over Spring to the Sky in the $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint Friday at Pimlico Race Course.
Bred, owned and trained by legendary Mid-Atlantic horseman and Hall of Famer King Leatherbury, Ben’s Cat captured the 11thrunning of the five-furlong Jim McKay for the fourth consecutive year and fifth time since 2011.
Ridden by Trevor McCarthy, Ben’s Cat ($7) split favored pacesetter Rocket Heat and 25-1 long shot Spring to the Sky with less than a sixteenth of a mile to the wire, winning by a neck in 56.10 seconds over a firm turf course.
“I was worried. He was back and that other horse was running his eyeballs out setting a real fast pace,” the 83-year-old Leatherbury said. “I knew he’d be kicking in but I didn’t think he’d be able to catch him. He fired right at the end, like he always does. That’s his running style. He’s a great horse, that’s all.”
Ben’s Cat is the winningest horse in training with 32 victories and 26 stakes victories from 55 lifetime starts, earning nearly $2.6 million in purses. According to Equibase statistics he is one of only five horses in the past 40 years to win 25 or more stakes, trailing only Hall of Famer John Henry’s 30. The others are Who Doctor Who, Little Bold John and Hall of Famer Xtra Heat.
“Good horses, all the time they come up, but they don’t last. Fans have a favorite horse and a year or two later, they’re gone,” Leatherbury said. “Here, he just goes and goes and goes and that’s what makes him so popular. He’s still around after all this time.”
Breaking from Post 2 as the 2-1 second choice in a field of eight, Ben’s Cat saved ground along the rail as 4-5 favorite Rocket Heat set a blistering pace of 21.46 seconds for a quarter-mile and 44.04 for the half.
Unable to swing Ben’s Cat wide for his familiar drive on the outside, McCarthy waited for an opportunity with the gutsy gelding and found room past the sixteenth pole to dramatically surge between the front-runners to the cheers of an appreciative crowd.
“It brings tears to my eyes, what can I say. It’s just amazing. That’s Ben’s Cat,” Leatherbury said. “It’s my salvation, really. That’s why I’m still here.”
Spring to the Sky got up for second, a half-length ahead of Rocket Heat. It was another length back to Night Officer in fourth.
Jim McKay Turf Handicap
Winning Trainer King Leatherbury (Ben’s Cat): “We planned to keep the same schedule as we did in the past. We’ll be heading to Pennsylvania for his next race (Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup; June 4, Penn National). We’ll be making reservations for here and there for next year. The last time my horse won the same race five times in a row, they cancelled the race – that was the Maryland Million Turf Sprint. He just keeps going. They say too many thrills will kill you, but I can attest that that is not the case. I’d have been dead a long time ago if that were true. This is actually the horse that keeps me going, fortunately. I’ve been using the same exercise rider from Day One and every time I asked him if he was as good coming into this race as last year, he told me, ‘He’s better.’”
(On another old campaigner that he conditioned) “Do you remember Port Conway Lane? Charles Kuralt did a piece on him one Sunday morning out here. He was good and he was old, but he could never run at this level.”
Winning Jockey Trevor McCarthy (Ben’s Cat): “He’s an unbelievable horse, by far, the best horse I’ve ever been on. I’ve just never seen a horse like that. You just have to give him something to run at. He was running up the fence, up the fence, and when I swung him out into the clear, I knew we were gone. I mean, just unbelievable. He knows where the wire is and says, ‘Let’s go Trevor, let’s go.’ He gave me his all and I wasn’t worried at all.”
Trainer Bruce Brown (Spring to the Sky, 2nd): “I was very, very happy with him.”
Jockey Michael Luzzi (Spring to the Sky, 2nd): “He broke well. Usually we get to the lead, but today we got the next best thing. I’m really proud of him. He ran big coming off the (six-month) layoff.”
Pimlico Race Course