There will be plenty at stake when popular multiple stakes-winning gelding Ben’s Cat makes his return to Saturday’s 31st annual Jim McKay Maryland Million Day program at Laurel Park in the $ 100,000 Sprint.
Bred, owned and trained by Hall of Fame horseman King Leatherbury, Ben’s Cat is already a three-time Million winner, having captured the Turf Sprint from 2010-13. A fourth victory would break his tie with Countus In, Docent, Eighttofasttocatch, Mz. Zill Bear and Safely Kept for most career Million wins.
At the age of 10, Ben’s Cat can match La Reine’s Terms (2005 Turf) for the oldest winner of a Million race. His seventh start will equal In the Curl (1986-92) for the most in event history, and he can move the 83-year-old Leatherbury into a tie for most Million wins as both a trainer and breeder.
“This horse has brought tears to my eyes many times,” Leatherbury said. “Maryland Million is just a special day. I remember the first year we ever had it, Jim McKay asked me, ‘Is this more important than a normal stake you win?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. It’s our race. It’s Maryland’s race.’ ”
Though proud of the numbers, Leatherbury is more concerned with the ones that Ben’s Cat has run this year. After opening the season with back-to-back wins including his fourth straight in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint on the eve of the Preakness Stakes (G1), he has lost four straight starts for the first time in a 59-race career that includes 32 wins, 26 in stakes, and $ 2.6 million in purse earnings.
Ben’s Cat finished third in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup, Parx Dash (G3) and the restricted Mister Diz Aug. 20 before running fifth in the Laurel Dash, a race where he was within striking range of the leaders at the top of the stretch but failed to fire.
“The big problem I have is, he’s not coming back to the good numbers that he ran last year. He has yet to run one of his good numbers this year,” Leatherbury said. “Now, can he come to life? If I’ve got somebody else’s horse and I’m handicapping the race, I’d say no. He’s not running the same kind of numbers, but I’ve been wrong many times when I handicap. I’ve crossed horses off and here they come winning.
“So, you never know; it’s horse racing,” he added. “All I can do is try to get a horse there that’s fit and sound and healthy. We’ll see what happens. I hope he can, but he hasn’t done it so far this year.”
In his other three Maryland Million starts, Ben’s Cat was second in the one-mile Turf in 2013 and 2014 and last year’s Sprint, coming up nose short of Jack’s in the Deck. His three Million losses have been by less than one length combined.
“That’s heartbreaking; however, he’s won most of his races by the same call,” Leatherbury said. “He doesn’t have those big-length wins because he knows what he’s doing. If he gets on the front too early he starts loafing and he needs a horse to run at. It almost looks like he times it perfectly, just to get up in time. It’s absolutely amazing. He’s had the most thrilling finishes that I’ve ever had.”
Ben’s Cat will break from Post 1 at highweight of 122 pounds under Trevor McCarthy, who took over riding duties this year. McCarthy has also been his regular work partner, most recently going five furlongs in 1:05 Oct. 15 over Laurel’s main track.
“It was definitely one of his best works all year. It doesn’t matter about the time, I would say, just the way he did it. He turned off for me and then finished a little bit and it was just the way he felt. I’m real excited about him,” McCarthy said. “I think this is his race, and we’re going to try our best. He always gives it his all so we’re expecting him to win.”
Eight horses are entered to face Ben’s Cat, including Maryland-bred also-eligibles Rockinn On Bye, Final Prospect and Magritte.
Back for a third straight try in the Sprint is TomRus LLC’s D C Dancer, who won the race in 2014 for trainer Mike Trombetta and was third last year, two lengths behind Ben’s Cat. He is a gelded 5-year-old son of the late Not For Love, the all-time leading Maryland Million stallion with 34 victories.
“He’s doing very well. He stalks, and that’s pretty much the way he likes to run. He sits right off the pace,” Trombetta said. “We’ve got to run our race no matter who’s in there, and just try our best.”
Feargal Lynch rides D C Dancer from Post 6 at 116 pounds.
Kathleen Willier’s Easy River returns to stakes company for the first time since the summer for trainer Hamilton Smith. Also by Not For Love, the 3-year-old bay colt’s lone win from nine starts this year came in an entry-level optional claiming allowance in March at Laurel going six furlongs.
Since then, Easy River has raced seven times at distances between 5 ½ furlongs and one mile over both turf and dirt. Last time out he rallied for third in a 5 ½-furlong grass sprint Oct. 7 at Laurel.
“We tried him seven-eighths a couple times and ran him a mile twice, and it looked like he just can’t get the distance,” trainer Hamilton Smith said. “The other day when he ran short on the grass, he came from way back and was closing pretty good. If they had another sixteenth of a mile, he might have gotten up.”
Easy River will carry jockey Jevian Toledo and 112 pounds from Post 3.
Unraced since finishing fourth in the Bachelor Stakes April 15 at Oaklawn Park, Mercedes Stables’ Morning Fire returns to action for trainer Keith Nations. The 3-year-old Friesan Fire colt has been worse than third twice in 11 career starts, winning the Pasco Stakes and Spectacular Bid in South Florida over the winter.
Also entered are All Fired Up and Nicaradalic Rocks, each with wins over Laurel’s main track this year.
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