Legendary trainer King Leatherbury stands with "Ben's… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
With 6,325 wins, King Leatherbury is the all-time third-winningest trainer in the country.
The 78-year-old has raced horses on the local circuit and beyond for more than five decades.
But he's never had a horse of major national prominence. And he isn't in the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.
Now, he has Ben's Cat, who has qualified for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. It's a race that could be Leatherbury's Hall of Fame ticket. But there is one problem.
Ben's Cat, who will run at Laurel Park Saturday in defense of his Maryland Million Turf crown, wasn't nominated for Breeders' Cup races. Even though he won the $356,000 Grade III Turf Monster Handicap at Parx Racing (Pa.) — which is part of the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" series — Ben's Cat isn't in.
And he won't be running at the Breeders' Cup unless Leatherbury finds someone (or a few someones) willing to partner with him to raise the $100,000 supplemental entry fee.
"Does it eat at me?" Leatherbury said, when asked about not nominating Ben's Cat as a foal. "No. If I nominated my horses every year and didn't nominate this one, then I'd feel bad. But I never nominate. The Breeders' Cup is the biggest race day in the country. You practically have to have a champion to nominate. The kind of horses I usually raise, it wouldn't make sense to nominate them."
If the Laurel Park-based Ben's Cat won the Breeders' Cup race, he would earn $540,000. Second place pays around $200,000 and third $99,000.
So, Leatherbury said anyone willing to put up the entry fee would get his or her money back if the horse finished in the top 3, and he would split any additional purse earnings equally. The gamble the money man takes, Leatherbury said, "Is will Ben's Cat finish in the top 3, or throw in a clunker?"
That has been the knock that is apparently keeping Leatherbury out of the Hall. He has had only two Grade I winners — Catatonic won the Hempstead Stakes at Belmont Park in 1987, and Taking Risks won the Iselin Handicap at Monmoth Park in 1994.
And Leatherbury has never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby or a Breeders' Cup race.
"There's a strong group who believe he should be in the Hall," said Ed Bowen, former editor of Blood Horse Magazine and chairman of the Hall of Fame nominating committee. "But counter to that is another group who sees he has won thousands of races, but that he hasn't had many major stakes races.
"Clearly, if he had a very good season and his horse went to the Breeders' Cup and did well, I don't want to speak for anyone, but it is something the committee [and voters] would pay attention to."
The purses for the Breeders' Cup races are funded by the money raised through the nomination of foals. A foal can be nominated for $500 at birth and for $1,500 in December of his or her birth year. Jim Gluckson, spokesman for the Breeders' Cup, said a late entry usually costs $100,000, but this year the organization made some changes.
With nine horses in Ben's Cat's position this year, the Breeders' Cup decided that horses making it in through the "Win and You're In" program would not have to pay the typical $30,000 entry fee. The organization also decided to provide $10,000 in travel expenses for the horses that won their way in.
The Breeders also, for the first time, allowed all horses of racing age to be nominated to the program for $25,000 from Feb. 1 through the end of June. Gluckson said the program was widely circulated. A total of 104 breeders and owners took advantage of it, but word of it apparently never reached Maryland.
Mike Gathagan, the Maryland Jockey Club's vice president of communications, said he never heard or saw anything about the program.
And Leatherbury didn't either.
"If I would have, I would have done that," Leatherbury said. "I used to not nominate for the Maryland Million. I didn't nominate Ah Day [Maryland Horse of the Year in 2006]. I took a lot of grief for that."
Leatherbury — the breeder, owner and trainer of Ben's Cat — said if he had known what a good horse Ben was going to turn in to, "I naturally would have nominated him. But I didn't know."
Who would? From the start, Ben's Cat has been a longshot to reach this level.
A distinctive dark bay whose coloring is so dark he looks black, Ben's Cat was sired by Parker's Storm Cat, who continues to be a virtual unknown in the stallion world.
Before Ben's Cat ever got to race, he suffered a broken pelvis as a 2-year-old, which kept him stall-bound for six months.
He didn't run his first race until he was four.
Then he won eight straight.
"To have that kind of horse," Leatherbury said, "you might have to breed a thousand."
Leatherbury gradually moved him up from the $20,000 claiming ranks to the Turf Monster. When he won that Labor Day race, it was his 12th win and seventh stakes victory in 17 starts. And in the Monster he beat defending Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner Chamberlain Bridge.