In sports, certain athletes come along and have careers that will almost certainly never be replicated. It’s even better when you know that as one such career is unfolding, and it makes everything much easier to appreciate when that career comes to an end.
Beloved 11-year-old veteran Ben’s Cat was retired Tuesday following an off-the-board finish in Saturday’s Mister Diz Stakes at Laurel Park. It’s fitting that the race served as his finale, since he won it an incredible six straight years from 2010 through 2015. He was managed in impeccable fashion by Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury, and while nobody would ever say Ben’s Cat was an elite horse, he amassed a considerable following and did a lot of good in an age where positive stories aren’t easy to come by.
Ben’s Cat finishes with 32 wins in 63 starts and earnings of more than $2.6 million, and you could forgive anyone who set low expectations for him at the outset of his career. His sire, Parker’s Storm Cat, was just 1-for-4 lifetime and never tried stakes company. His dam, Twofox, was a three-time winner, but one who won just one of her final 11 starts.
Consider what that modest pedigree resulted in. It led to a horse who won 26 stakes races and amassed more outings than American Pharoah, California Chrome, and Zenyatta combined. He won at least one race at historic Pimlico Race Course in seven consecutive years, which is a record that may go untouched (similar to Fourstardave’s eight-year run at Saratoga). He was at his best on turf, but was far from a slouch on dirt, having won three straight renewals of the rich Fabulous Strike Handicap at Penn National.
Was Ben’s Cat a top-echelon horse? No. He never tried Grade 1 company, let alone a Breeders’ Cup race. That said…does it matter?
We live in an age where thoroughbreds “breeze” a furlong at 2-year-old sales, sell for obscene amounts of money, and leave those connections shocked when infirmities show up that often cause early retirements (though not shocked enough to stop seeking and overpaying for prodigious speed at 2-year-old sales the next year). By comparison, Ben’s Cat retired sound at age 11 after a career that made him one of the most beloved horses in the country. You could offer me 100 of those impressive-looking 2-year-olds. I’ll take one Ben’s Cat replica instead.
Much has been made lately about ways the sport of horse racing can grow. What the game needs are horses the average fan can get behind, ones that people will come to the track to see run once a month. In any sport, stars create business and interest, and it’s no different in horse racing. We don’t need impressive 2-year-old maiden winners who run a few times and retire prematurely. We need warhorses, ones who are reliable, hard-knocking, and sound. That’s what Ben’s Cat was for so long. He was a stalwart in an age where stalwarts are hard to come by, and even at age 11, when it was clear he lost a step physically, he had the mind and competitiveness of a stakes-quality horse.
As some of you know, I have a vote for horse racing’s Hall of Fame. It’s safe to assume that based on current criteria, Ben’s Cat won’t get inducted. He likely won’t even make a ballot. The same can be said for Fourstardave, whose Saratoga record may be the most unbreakable mark in all of thoroughbred racing. Ditto for the likes of Rapid Redux, Pepper’s Pride, and Hallowed Dreams, all horses who reeled off extensive winning streaks at small circuits around the country far away from the bright lights of New York, Kentucky, and California.
For this reason, I’ve hashed out an idea to honor the hard-knocking veterans of the sport. These horses may not have had Secretariat’s abilities, Forego’s closing kick, or the pure speed of Dr. Fager, but what they did was equally as valuable to the game we love. They engaged fans, they always showed up, and when their careers were over, everyone who saw them run sincerely appreciated their efforts and contributions.
I propose a Warhorse Wing of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Every year, a committee would have an option to induct a horse that fulfilled pre-existing criteria. I’m open to any constructive criticism, but my initial criteria is that a horse must meet at least one of the below requirements for consideration.
1) Run for a minimum of five seasons.
2) Achieve a minimum of 50 career starts.
3) Win 10 or more races consecutively.
I’m aware of plenty of rational viewpoints against this idea. Yes, this would open the doors for horses of lesser ability into the Hall of Fame, and yes, this would add an induction to classes that are already growing in size due to a backlog of worthy candidates. Those are valid criticisms, and if you fall into one of those camps, I won’t argue too strenuously with you (side note: boy, I’d make an awful politician).
Having said that, horses that meet the above criteria have done an immeasurable amount of good for the game. It’s my belief that they deserve the highest possible level of recognition, especially in an era where long, productive careers aren’t necessarily the norm.
I don’t have a snappy, witty closing line to finish things off with, so I’ll end with a story. Last year, the day before the Preakness, I was working at TVG headquarters. Ben’s Cat was a 10-year-old, and signs of his decline were beginning to show. I watched the race with racing cynic/PhotoShop wizard Danny Kovoloff, and we saw 4/5 favorite Rocket Heat spurt clear at the top of the stretch while Ben’s Cat looked pinned in along the rail. With a furlong to go, it looked like the veteran was bound for a minor award; a solid showing, for sure, but a certain step down from some of his prior efforts.
Then, with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Ben’s Cat angled off the rail. He somehow found space between Rocket Heat and longshot Spring to the Sky, and Danny and I (two people whose curmudgeonly behavior far outweighs our relative youth) began screaming at the television.
“COME ON, BEN! COME ON, BEN!”
Ben’s Cat hit the wire clear by a head in what would turn out to be the last winning performance of his career. A TVG executive heard the noise, stepped out of his office, and remarked, “…that was awesome.”
You’re right, racing needs to find a way to keep horses running longer in order to develop stronger fan connections with the equine athletes. Why not have a stakes race named after Ben’s Cat that is restricted to 6 year olds and above? That would be fun both as a spectator and also offer the bettors plenty of PP’s to base their handicapping on.