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Eighttofasttocatch, Ben's Cat highlight 29th Jim McKay Maryland Million at Laurel Park

Eighttofasttocatch, shown during a race at Pimlico Race Course in 2013, will run in one of the last races of his distinguished career Saturday.
Eighttofasttocatch, shown during a race at Pimlico Race Course in 2013, will run in one of the last races of his distinguished career Saturday. (Jim McCue / Maryland Jockey Club)

With purse sizes and bonuses for owners and breeders growing as casino slot machine and table game revenue increasingly is earmarked for the horse racing industry, the quality of horses running in Maryland has begun to rebound after a long decline.

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The Maryland Million, run since 1986, is the second-most popular day of racing in the state, after the Preakness. Created by McKay, the late ABC sportscaster, as a showcase for the state's breeding and racing industries, it features runners almost exclusively sired by Maryland-based stallions.

Saturday's two spotlight horses, Eighttofasttocatch and Ben's Cat, are both 8 years old and approaching the end of long, stellar careers.

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Eighttofasttocatch, a son of leading Maryland Million sire Not for Love, is the 3-5 morning-line favorite to win the 1 1/8-mile $150,000 Maryland Million Classic in his fifth appearance in the event. After finishing third in the 2010 Maryland Million Turf, Eighttofasttocatch switched to dirt and won the Classic in 2011, finished fifth in 2012 and won again last year.

A victory in his 48th career start would push Eighttofasttocatch's lifetime earnings past $1 million. Trainer Tim Keefe said the gelding will make just one start after Saturday before retiring to his farm in Sandy Spring.

"He's been a wonderful horse," Keefe said. "He certainly doesn't owe anybody anything."

Eighttofasttocatch was owned by Arnold Heft, who died in March at age 94. Heft was a prominent real estate developer who also co-owned the Baltimore Bullets and was one of the first referees in the NBA. Heft's wife, Sylvia, long his racing partner, has Alzheimer's disease and will not be on hand to see Eighttofasttocatch's attempt to become the first three-time winner of the Classic, Keefe said.

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Eighttofasttocatch is "completely sound, and rather than retiring a horse when he has an injury or when something happens to him, they made the decision together that we'll retire him after this year," Keefe said. "He's had a great career, and we'll give him a good second career after that. He'll go to me, and my wife will make him into an event horse."

Without the Hefts present, Keefe said a victory Saturday would be bittersweet.

"There's a lot of emotion, but I get a little emotional sometimes. [Heft] was the first guy, the first big owner that came along into the barn that threw a lot of money at me and said, 'Here, get me some race horses,' " Keefe said. "He had a lot of confidence and faith in me."

If trainer King Leatherbury has his way, Ben's Cat isn't anywhere close to retirement. The gelding, a homebred, didn't race until he was 4 because of a fractured pelvis, but he has been machine-like since, winning 27 of 43 starts, with 22 stakes races victories and earnings of more than $2.1 million.

Ben's Cat won the Maryland Million Turf Sprint from 2010 to 2012; the race has since been discontinued. Leatherbury ran him in the mile-long $125,000 Turf last year, as he will again Saturday, in which he finished second. Ben's Cat is the 8-5 morning-line favorite against defending champion Road Hog.

"He's a great horse; that's all I know," said Leatherbury, 81, whose 6,440 career wins as a trainer through Thursday are fourth most all time. "He's gotten a little more aggressive in his older age. At first, he was very passive. He never really got on the muscle, but the last two races, he was really kind of getting mean. In the barn, you'd walk by and he'd try to bite you. He never used to do that."

Leatherbury cross-entered Ben's Cat in the Sprint, which is run on dirt, and analyzed both fields before choosing to compete in only the Turf.

The Turf "is too far, and the other one [the Sprint], I was carrying 123 pounds, so you factor in the weight, and a couple horses could beat me. In the Turf race, what might beat me is the distance, but not the quality of horses. He doesn't want to run a mile, but the opposition is easier than in the Sprint, I think."

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