King T. Leatherbury was born in Shady Side, in Anne Arundel County, and has been around Laurel Park racetrack so long, even old-timers can’t remember the place without him.
Through the track’s glory days in the 1970s and ’80s, its slow demise in the 2000s and recent rebirth following a commitment by the ownership and state government, Leatherbury, now 84, has been on the scene.
Through last week, he had trained the winners of 6,490 races, fifth-most all time, in a career that dates to 1959. In 2015, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He’s a shrewd operator in an often cutthroat business as well as a fantastic standup comic, with as much passion for betting on horses as he has for racing them.
On Saturday, Leatherbury endured one of his roughest days in racing, burying the remains of his greatest horse, Ben’s Cat, in a short ceremony outside the old paddock at Laurel Park.
The vast majority of Leatherbury’s excellence has been achieved at the middle and bottom rungs of racing – in the claiming game – where instead of running for immortality like Secretariat, the horses are bought and sold, often from race to race, and go from one barn to another. Developing an emotional attachment to a claiming horse is not advisable because it could be living somewhere else by sunset.
Leatherbury had a few stakes winners through the years, but he never got misty-eyed about his runners.
Until Ben’s Cat came along.
The Cat was different. Leatherbury bred him without much expectation from a lowly stallion, and the horse broke his pelvis when young and didn’t reach the races until he was 4. Leatherbury debuted him in a cheap $16,000 maiden claiming race at Pimlico, and no one could have known what was coming.
Ben’s Cat won that first race and then seven more before finally being defeated. Then he got even better, winning and winning, on turf and on dirt, often in spectacular fashion. He could look hopelessly beaten turning for home before sling-shotting through the lane between rivals and hitting the finish line just in time to get his nose in front.
At racetracks in California, Kentucky and New York, stakes horses are everywhere, but in Maryland it seemed like there was only Ben’s Cat. In a career that began in 2010 and ended this past June, he won 32 times in 63 starts with 26 stakes victories and earnings of $2,643,782. The four-time Maryland Horse of the Year became a fan favorite across the country, a win machine blazing away in the white and fluorescent orange colors of Leatherbury’s Jim Stable.
The years went by and Ben’s Cat kept on going, to age 11, long after most top sprinters are out to pasture.
Finally, Ben’s Cat couldn’t win anymore and Leatherbury retired him after a ninth-place finish June 24 and gave him away to farm owners in Kentucky. The owners were thrilled, but there were pangs of remorse, uncertainty and even betrayal in local fans who protectively looked at Ben’s Cat as their own. To them, he was Maryland’s horse.
Ben’s Cat’s time in Kentucky was brief. On June 28, his groom, Avon Thorpe, loaded him onto a van at Laurel and said a tearful farewell. On July 6, it was announced Ben’s Cat had undergone colic surgery. On July 18, he was dead.
The swiftness shocked and devastated the Maryland racing community, and the grief reached Leatherbury in a way few had ever seen in all his years. The old trainer, always so upbeat, appeared bewildered by what had happened to the horse that had taken him on his wildest ride and never let him down.
On Saturday morning before the races, around 150 horsemen and fans joined Leatherbury, his staff and the jockeys who rode Ben’s Cat on the northeast side of the paddock to bury their hero’s remains.
Leatherbury, sadness etched on his face, clutched a dozen orange roses, a sentimental gesture from a man not easily given to them. Leatherbury is a master, and Ben’s Cat was his masterpiece, one of the greatest race horses the state has ever known.
“Ben’s Cat was an amazing, magnificent animal,” Leatherbury said, turning to the crowd after dropping the flowers into the horse’s grave. That pretty much said it all.
John Scheinman is a two-time Eclipse Award winner for writing about horse racing.