Maybe it's something in our Maryland water, but it appears the state has a tendency to produce iron-like athletes. Of course, just about every fan in the Free State has pride and admiration for the most prominent athlete known for longevity and dedication -- Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who holds the major league baseball record at 2,632 consecutive games played.
However, another Maryland athlete who was also made of stern, enduring stuff has just ended his own long, legendary career.
Ben's Cat, a Maryland-bred thoroughbred who is easily the state's most beloved horse, has retired following what turned out to be his farewell race in June.
The 11-year-old dark bay gelding, who looked almost black in a certain light, defied the calendar and convention by bursting from the starting gate 63 times and then strolling to the winner's circle after 32 of those starts. His first win was in his first race at Pimlico Race Course in 2010.
Overall, the horse known alternately as "Ben" or "The Cat" was 32-9-7, meaning that his bettors cashed winning tickets more than half the time he ran. Of his 32 triumphs, 26 were in stakes races, and he earned $2.6 million in purse money.
He was owned and trained by King Leatherbury, now 84, who credited Ben's Cat with making him a Hall of Fame trainer. Leatherbury has used the word "salvation" to describe what Ben's Cat meant to the trainer's career so late in the game.
Now, Ben's Cat is in retirement at a farm near Versailles, Ky., where Chris Welker has assumed his stewardship. She had been trying to convince Leatherbury for more than two years to let her take care of Ben's Cat when his racing days were finished.
"I first noticed Ben when he started having success and started winning stakes races. Frankly, he was beating horses that he should not have been beating," Welker said. "At first, it was, ‘Wow, this a pretty good horse,' and then it was, ‘Wow! This is a pretty
Ben's Cat specialized in sprints and was a superstar on Laurel Park's world-class turf course. He owned the Mister Diz Stakes, which has been run from five to six furlongs, winning it six straight years from 2010 through 2015. He finished first in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint at Pimlico five times, the most recent in a breathtaking late burst to the wire in 2016.
In fact, that was a trademark move for Ben's Cat, firing in the last few strides to pull off still another photo-finish win.
While some might contend Ben's Cat didn't have the pedigree of some of his competitors, his own sire (Parker's Storm Cat) was fathered by Storm Cat, considered the game's top stallion for a time (his stud fees were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars). And several generations before that, Ben's Cat's ancestral line included Canadian wonder-horse Northern Dancer and probably the greatest racing thoroughbred of all time, Secretariat.
As a 2-year-old, Ben's Cat suffered a broken pelvis that delayed his racing career until he was 4. Amazingly, he went on to campaign for eight years -- an eternity in horse racing.
"That was a pretty serious injury he had as a 2-year-old," Welker said. "He was like a little kid who had to overcome adversity, and he's been such an overachiever his entire career."
Ben's Cat ran for the final time in the Mister Diz Stakes at Laurel Park June 24, and despite making one more charge from the far outside, he wound up finishing back in the pack in a race won by Phlash Phelps.
For the time being, Ben's Cat is getting some well-deserved time off. Welker said he enjoys being outside, which is something some racehorses that are used to being stalled so much have a tough time adjusting to.
"Sometimes with retired horses, you need to give them a career. But Ben has had a career, a great career," Welker said. "... For a racehorse, 11 is old, but for non-racing horses, it's not so old. He has a lot of good years left."
Welker said eventually she'll begin to ride Ben's Cat and possibly even do some modest show jumping with him.
"He likes attention, and he'll get plenty of that," she said. "He already is getting a lot of attention."
As special as it is when human athletes have long careers that allow fans to develop special attachments, it is far more rare among four-legged athletes. One of the problems that horseracing faces is that the stars of the sport run as 3-year-olds in the Triple Crown races, compete for perhaps another year, and then stand at stud, gone from the spotlight.
"Good horses, all the time they come up, but they don't last," Leatherbury said after Ben's Cat won the Jim McKay Turf Sprint last year. "Fans can have a favorite horse, and a year or two later, they're gone. And here, he just goes and goes and goes."
In the imagination of racing fans, that's how Ben's Cat will always be remembered, perpetually sprinting to the finish line, and getting there first.
Casino Economic Impact
Last month, the American Gaming Association made Live! Casino and Hotel one of its stops during a national information tour touting gaming's contribution to local small businesses. The AGA is the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization that represents the casino industry.
Nationally, the casino business has supported 350,000 small business jobs away from the gambling halls, the AGA said.
Not to be lost in those statistics, though, is the direct employment gaming provides. In Maryland, more than 11,100 jobs are filled in the state's six casino paying $446 million in wages, according to an AGA report.
Live! Casino and Hotel alone currently has about 3,000 employees and about another 500 workers are helping to build a hotel and conference center adjacent to the casino. Once that addition is open sometime next year, another 400 full-time positions will be added.
Issue 235: July 2017