Trainer King Leatherbury didn't expect much from Ben's Cat. The horse had suffered a broken pelvis as a 2-year-old and spent nearly a year getting better in his stall. He didn't run at all at ages 2 or 3, so when he was finally ready to hit the racetrack as a 4-year-old no one expected much.
Leatherbury entered him in a $20,000 claiming race. The horse won. Leatherbury entered him in a $25,000 claiming race and the horse won again. And no one claimed him.
"Each time he ran, he got better," Leatherbury said. "I'm lucky I didn't lose him in that second claimer. Looking back now, I'd be sick if I had lost him."
Ben's Cat, the gelded son of Parker's Storm Cat, who never had a distinctive winner until he mated with Leatherbury's Twofox to produce this horse, is the morning line favorite in today's 25th Maryland Million $100,000 Turf Sprint at Laurel Park.
If Ben's Cat wins, it will be Leatherbury's first Maryland Million win in nine years and his eighth in the 25 years of the event.
Ben's Cat is undefeated in his five career starts this year, including his most recent outing in the Mister Diz Stakes. No one expected that, and Ben's Cat is viewed as something of a "freak," a talented, fast horse who has overcome suspect breeding and injury to become a star on local tracks.
"I know he's a lifesaver for my barn, right now," Leatherbury said. "I don't have that much quality or quantity."
The Kelso Room is a place for high rollers on the first floor of the Laurel Park clubhouse. On almost any day you can find Leatherbury there, sitting at a table in front of the simulcasting screens. His lunch is at his elbow, and his racing books and charts are always spread around him. It's where he does his studying and handicapping.
Leatherbury, 77, has the third-most wins all time among trainers with 6,303. But at this time in his life, his history and work ethic don't mean much to young horse owners who are looking for trainers their age to whom they can relate.
When new owners don't come your way, winners are hard to come by. Leatherbury said the youngest owner he works with is in his 60s or 70s. And his stable, which used to house 60 horses, most of good quality, now has 18.
"King was winning races when I was a kid," said trainer Mike Trombetta, whose horse Peter's Creek will run in the Sprint. "He'd win six or seven races a day. You know he's quite remarkable. He's still as sharp as ever, in great physical condition -- as best we can tell by what we see -- and he still loves the game.
"And for anybody to accomplish what he has, winning more than 6,000 races, it's crazy. Trainers come and go, but he's been doing it forever, and his accomplishments -- only a few, Dale Baird and Jack Van Berg, have won more."
To get a winner now, Leatherbury said, he usually has to do well with claimers, which he acknowledges he hasn't done lately, or breed them himself. That's how he got Ben's Cat, who is the last of the line Leatherbury started when he bought the mare Dronett at the Timonium sale a long time ago.
"She was a super producer," Leatherbury said fondly. "She produced two mares. One gave me Ah Day [a former Maryland Horse of the Year] and the other, Twofox, has given me this horse. For some reason, Parker's Storm Cat and Twofox produced a fine horse. I had wanted to introduce a line with Storm Cat and AP Indy, and Parker's Storm Cat did that. But other than Ben's Cat, Parker's Storm Cat was a failure in the breeding barn."
Leatherbury did try to set another breeding date for Parker's Storm Cat and Twofox, but the stallion had been sold to a farm in Washington state.
"Could they have sent him anywhere further away?" Leatherbury asked.
But the trainer is undaunted. He said he feels young.
"I'm still kicking strong at 77," he said. On Friday night, he was presented the John W. Galbreath Award for outstanding entrepreneurship in the equine industry. The award has been presented since 1990 by the University of Louisville, and the only other trainer to receive it is D. Wayne Lukas.
"I'm very honored to be recognized," said Leatherbury, who will be honored for the award again this afternoon between races at the track. But he doesn't see it as inspiration for younger owners to come knocking on his door.
"No one new is coming," he said. "It's a matter of having what you have. Whatever comes along. It's been that way my whole career.
"This isn't a business you retire from. You play it down to the end. This horse, with the injury he had, you don't know if he's ever going to be the horse you thought he could be. It's all a gamble, but you've got to go with him because you've put so much money in him."
To this point, Ben's Cat has been flawless. Part of that has been because of Leatherbury's handicapping. He knows how to pick good spots for his horses. When he was preparing for this weekend, he considered running Ben's Cat in the Sprint, but when he saw Trombetta's Peter's Creek and Bruce Levine's Roaring Lion in the field he decided to run the Turf Sprint, which is run on the turf course. That's where Ben's Cat produced his best race so far, in the Mister Diz Stakes in August.
Today, Leatherbury will be in the Kelso Room watching his unexpected prize horse run. There is no doubting his confidence.
"Ben's Cat has continued to improve in every race," Leatherbury said. "If he continues to do that in this race, there will be no trouble here. But if he doesn't, he still has a chance to beat the two horses I think have a chance -- Phosphorescent and Heros Reward. As for the others, if I can't beat them we don't deserve to win."