King Leatherbury won't pretend he knew what he had in Ben's Cat.
If the legendary Maryland trainer had seen the brown gelding's potential, he never would have stuck him in a $20,000 claiming race, there to be snatched by any other enterprising horseman.
Ben's Cat came from an obscure stallion and a mare with a short resume. He wasn't ready to race as a 2-year-old and had to sit out his 3-year-old season with a broken pelvis. So when Leatherbury, Maryland's winningest living trainer, ran him in that first race at Pimlico, he expected little.
But the late-debuting horse won that race and the next seven he entered. Four years later, he's at 23 wins and counting, having earned Leatherbury a cool $1,695,640. On Saturday at Laurel Park, Ben's Cat will try to become the first horse to win a fourth race at the Maryland Million, the state's premiere day of racing for the products of Maryland stallions.
The horse's rise from obscurity has fueled a similar ascent for his 80-year-old trainer, who has used Ben's Cat's winnings to repopulate a stable that had seemed in decline.
"He's kept me alive," Leatherbury said at Wednesday's post-position draw for the Maryland Million. "I'm 80 years old, and you start to lose owners. A lot of my owners had died off. So I've used his winnings to claim horses and keep my stable going."
Fellow horsemen can only shake their heads in admiration at Leatherbury's persistence.
"We've been calling him Lazarus," said Mike Pons, who runs Country Life Farm in Bel Air with his brother, Josh.
Leatherbury has cross-entered Ben's Cat in two races for Saturday, the $100,000 Maryland Million Sprint and the $125,000 Maryland Million Turf. He'll analyze the two fields and then choose, a familiar approach for a trainer who has always thought like a handicapper.
"That's what I do every day," he said. "That's what got me in the game."
Eighttofasttocatch, the favorite in the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic, will start from the rail in the No. 1 position of a seven-horse field.
It's fitting that no trainer has more Maryland Million wins than Leatherbury, with 10. Year after year, he has maintained a well-populated stable at Laurel and has ground out wins at Maryland tracks.
"You think of people who have consistently kept a large number of horses here and been loyal to Laurel and Pimlico at the entry box and King is at the front of the list," said Dave Rodman, who has announced races at Laurel Park since 1991. "A lot of people appreciate the working man's horse, who always gets up and keeps trying. Well, that's King among the trainers."
Rodman remembered a day when he was stuck behind a slow-moving Mercedes on the way to the track. He finally pulled alongside the car and realized Leatherbury was driving with the Daily Racing Form spread out across the steering wheel.
The man is never done studying the game that has consumed his life.
Pons said that with more than 6,400 wins (fifth all-time), Leatherbury is the greatest trainer not in the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.
"I'm just glad he's finally getting his due," Pons added. "For years, people tried to dismiss him as the guy with the supermarket stable, just claiming huge numbers of horses. But he's a genius in a lot of ways, and I don't care what you say, 6,400 is a lot of wins."
That Leatherbury has authored his late surge with such an improbable champion makes the story even more fun.
Sweet-tempered Ben's Cat has rarely dusted the field in his 23 wins, most of which have come on turf or in short sprints over dirt.
"He does have speed," Leatherbury said. "But he doesn't like to kick it in until the stretch. I think he sees a horse in front of him and that makes him really try to win."
He has run the gelding fairly conservatively over the years, but said he's amazed every spring, when Ben's Cat comes back to race looking sharp. At age seven, he's won four of six races, most recently the $100,000 Laurel Dash Stakes on Sept. 21 under jockey Julian Pimentel.
"He's just as good as ever," Leatherbury said. "I don't know how long he can keep it up."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun