Ben's Cat, the late-blooming thoroughbred champion who thrilled Maryland racing fans and reinvigorated the career of Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury, was retired Tuesday at age 11.
Ben's Cat finished ninth in the 6-furlong Mister Diz at Laurel Park on Saturday, and Leatherbury felt he looked worn out in losing his eighth straight race.
"He just hadn't come back to last year's form," he said. "He wasn't getting anything, and I just hated to see him keep going like that. It was time to draw a line."
Jockey Horacio Karamanos agreed after riding Ben's Cat in the Mister Diz, saying, "When the winner came by me, my horse was empty."
Ben's Cat had not won since May 2016, but his recent string of losses will go down as a footnote in a remarkable career that included 26 stakes victories and more than $2.6 million in earnings.
All those victories came after Ben's Cat broke his pelvis at age 2 and did not make his first career start until age 4. Once he got going, the dark bay gelding became the grand old man of Maryland racing, dominating sprints such as the Mister Diz, which he won six straight times between 2010 and 2015.
Like his trainer, the 84-year-old Leatherbury, he was an underdog who forced himself into the upper echelon of the sport by winning and then winning some more.
Fans grew to love him, buzzing anytime Leatherbury led him out for a race at Laurel or Pimlico Race Course. "He had a huge fan base," the trainer said. "He lasted so long. Most stars, they come along and burn out after a few years. But he kept going."
In fact, Ben's Cat revived Leatherbury's career after the trainer had watched his fortunes dwindle because of the deaths of several key owners for whom he'd trained. When Leatherbury finally went into the Hall of Fame in 2015, he gave Ben's Cat, whom he'd also bred, much of the credit.
"He's an amazing horse," Leatherbury said at the time. "No question about him being the one who kept my name up in the lights, so to speak."
Ben's Cat was the Maryland-bred Horse of the Year four times. His last victory, in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint, was characteristic as he surged from off the pace and split two horses to steal the race at the wire. "The Cat surges through!" track announcer Dave Rodman shouted.
To Leatherbury's mind, that performance is as good a way to remember him as any.
"It was as exciting a race as I've ever seen," the venerable trainer said.
Ben's Cat trained well coming into 2017, leading Leatherbury to believe he might have one more successful campaign in him. But he never found his old come-from-behind verve on race day, finishing fifth, eighth and ninth in three starts.
With his stirring victories (32 in 63 career starts) now behind him, Ben's Cat will retire to the Kentucky farm of one of his fans, Chris Welker. She approached Leatherbury on Preakness weekend a few years back and said she'd be honored to take the sweet-tempered champion when he was finally done.
He'll leave Maryland on Wednesday evening. There won't be a ceremony.
"But maybe a few tears," Leatherbury said.