Ben's Cat, four-time Maryland Horse of the Year, euthanized

Ben’s Cat, the only four-time Maryland Horse of the Year and a Maryland-bred champion who was retired last month with more than $2 million in earnings, was euthanized Tuesday after complications arose during his recovery from a recent surgery.

The 11-year-old gelding, who raced his entire career for Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury, underwent surgery July 6 at Hagyard Equpiine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., on an epiploic foramen entrapment, an abnormal displacement of small intestine through a small hole or foramen.

“It is with great sadness that we report that Ben’s Cat was euthanized [Tuesday] afternoon due to postoperative complications following colic surgery,” Dr. Rana Bozorgmanesh, an internal medicine specialist at Hagyard who was overseeing his care, said in a statement.

After his final race, a ninth-place finish in the June 24 Mister Diz at Laurel Park, Ben’s Cat was retired to the Kentucky farm of one of his fans, Chris Welker. She had approached Leatherbury on Preakness weekend a few years ago and said she would be honored to take in the so-called “Pride of Maryland” at her Spring Ridge Farm in Versailles, Ky., in his retirement.

Ben’s Cat arrived at Spring Ridge on June 29, two days after Leatherbury announced the horse’s retirement.

“I had loved Ben for years and was beyond grateful that Mr. Leatherbury entrusted me with his care,” Welker said in a statement. She added: “My heart is shattered, not only for Ben, but for Mr. Leatherbury, the team who took care of him day in and day out for years and the fans who loved him.”

Unlike most of the horses who passed through Leatherbury’s stable, Ben’s Cat was homebred, the progeny of Twofox, an unraced mare, and stallion Parker’s Storm Cat.

After breaking his pelvis as a 2-year-old, Ben’s Cat didn’t win his first race until age 4, a $20,000 claiming race in 2010 at Pimlico Race Course. Leatherbury raced him again, in a $25,000 claiming race, and won again. And again, no one claimed him.

Six straight wins followed.

“Each time he ran, he got better,” Leatherbury, 84, told The Baltimore Sun in 2010. “I’m lucky I didn’t lose him in that second claimer. Looking back now, I’d be sick if I had lost him.”

As Leatherbury’s fortune started to turn — several key owners for whom he’d trained had died before Ben’s Cat’s emergence — his top horse kept on winning, both races and fans. Over an eight-year career, Ben’s Cat earned 26 stakes victories in 63 starts, with earnings of $2,634,782.

He became a terror particularly on turf sprints in the Mid-Atlantic. At Laurel, Ben’s Cat won the Mister Diz Stakes six years in a row, from 2010 to 2015. At Pimlico, he won the Jim McKay Turf Sprint five times, including four straight from 2013 to 2016. And at Parx Racing, in Bensalem, Pa., he won the Grade III Turf Monster Handicap in 2011 and 2012 and the Grade III Parx Dash from 2012 to 2014.

In a testament to his class, Ben’s Cat also finished the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons by switching to a dirt track and winning the Fabulous Strike Handicap at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa.

“For a horse to be as good as he was for as long as he was, even though it was mostly seasonal with turf and everything and everything, it was still remarkable,” trainer Mike Trombetta said Tuesday night. “They’re definitely once-in-a-lifetime horses.”

Ben’s Cat’s last win came in May 2016, in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint, a race in which “at no time … did he look like he was going to win,” Leatherbury said. But he rallied along the rail and, surging forward, split the leaders to claim victory at the wire by a nose.

Georganne Hale, vice president of racing for the Maryland Jockey Club, told the Daily Racing Form last month that Laurel intends to celebrate Ben’s Cat’s career this fall.

“He lasted so long,” Leatherbury, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, toldThe Sun in June, after Ben’s Cat’s last race. “Most stars, they come along and burn out after a few years. But he kept going.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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