There was no surprise and little wonder for trainer King Leatherbury, when his nearly machine-like 6-year-old gelding Ben's Cat won yet again Saturday on Maryland Million Day at Laurel Park.
Victory has become expected.
At age 79, with 6,349 career victories — third all-time in racing history — Leatherbury has pretty much seen it all in 53 years of training. Yet, of the thousands of horses that have passed through his barn over the years, none has been able to get it done like Ben's Cat.
Bred by Leatherbury, Ben's Cat didn't even race as a 2-year-old because of a broken pelvis, but he has produced almost nothing but trips to the winner's circle since his career began three years ago.
Under jockey Julien Pimentel, the dark brown speedster, sired by an obscure stallion named Parker's Storm Cat, raced in third place off dueling long shots Boltin' Out and Steady Warrior in the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint, took control at the top of the stretch and held off a late challenge from Heros Reward to win by three-quarters of a length.
He ran the 5 ½-furlong race in a sizzling 1:01.64 while carrying 128 pounds, 11 more than any other runner in the field of nine.
Maryland Million Day, created by the late ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, ranks only behind the Preakness Stakes in importance on the state thoroughbred racing calendar. The showcase for the progeny of Maryland-based stallions features 11 races worth more than a combined $1 million.
A huge throng from the on-track crowd of 15,822 gathered around the winner's circle as Leatherbury and his horse stepped in.
"There's nothing more to say about him. What more can we say?" said the typically understated Leatherbury. "He does the same thing over and over again. It's just him. It's just the horse. There's nothing we do special. He's a super horse."
Ben's Cat won the Turf Sprint for the third year in a row, joining Hall of Famer Safely Kept, Countus In, Docent and Mz. Zill Bear as the only horses in the 27 years of the Maryland Million to win three times.
He pushed his record to a perfect 5-for-5 on the Laurel turf course and has now won 18 of 27 lifetime starts with earnings of $1,216,090.
"He's by far the best; he's an unbelievable horse," Pimentel said.
While Ben's Cat stood out as the star of the show, he wasn't the only runner to turn in a top performance on the Million card.
Delaware Park-based Not Abroad hugged the rail while tracking the pace in fourth place and then slipped by the tiring leader on the far turn and pulled away to win the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic for 3-year-olds and up.
Trained by Michel Petro and ridden by his brother, Nick, Not Abroad ran the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:51.06, while defending champion Eighttofasttocatch struggled home a distant fifth.
The other dominant performance of the day came from Bold Affair, who rolled away to a 13 1/4 –length victory in the $100,000 Maryland Million Distaff.
Ridden by jockey Abel Castellano, the daughter of the late stallion Two Punch cleared immediately to a three-length lead and steadily widened it before completing the seven-furlong dirt race in 1:24.52.
Trainer Howard Wolfendale had hoped to showcase his 4-year-old against the best in the country this summer at Saratoga Race Course but decided to stay home when he couldn't obtain stalls for the meet. He rested Bold Affair from June 23 to Sept. 5, when Bold Affair tuned up for the Distaff with a deceptive sixth-place finish in the $100,000 Jameela on the turf at Laurel.
The bettors weren't fooled by the weak performance. They sent Bold Affair off at commanding odds of 1-5 in the Distaff, and soon Wolfendale and Castellano each had their third career Maryland Million victories.
"The race went very well," Wolfendale said. "She just kept opening up. I was thinking, 'Slow her down just a little bit,' but [Castellano] must have known how much horse that he had."
Bold Affair now has won eight of 14 lifetime starts and earned $449,080.
The all-source handle for the Maryland Million Day card came to $3.3 million.
Maryland Million Day winners
The winners Saturday at Laurel Park:
$100,000 Lassie: Classy Coco
$50,000 Distaff Starter Handicap: Motherload Hipster
$100,000 Ladies: Pagan Priestess
$100,000 Distaff: Bold Affair
$100,000 Oaks: Jazzy Idea
$100,000 Turf Sprint: Ben's Cat
$100,000 Nursery: Keep Momma Happy
$100,000 Sprint: Action Andy
$100,000 Turf: Roadhog
$50,000 Starter Handicap: Varborough
$150,000 Classic: Not Abroad