You can always train the other guy’s horse. That’s what my father says whenever anyone second-guesses someone else’s handling of a horse, a child, a sports team, a business, pretty much anything.
It’s easy to question decisions from the sidelines, difficult to actually make decisions in the barn or on the field or in the executive chair.
Owner/trainer/breeder King T. Leatherbury retired Ben’s Cat in June, and lived up to a promise by sending the 10-year-old gelding to the Kentucky farm of Chris Welker. The decision was different, but Leatherbury is different and so was his horse. Welker loved Ben’s Cat, provided an amazing home and promised to enjoy him for as long as he lived. The four-time Maryland-bred Horse of the Year would get a chance to go trail riding someday, or not. It would be up to him.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
He got colic and died less than a month after he was retired. The news felt like a punch from Joe Frazier or a body check from Scott Stevens, and made anyone wonder what would have happened if Leatherbury hadn’t retired him or left the horse at Laurel for a month or sent him to a local farm.
I don’t know what would have happened. I do know none of those choices would have made Ben’s Cat immune from colic, or any other ailment. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Thoroughbreds are as fragile as dollar-store eyeglasses. Horses seemingly get sick and injured on whims or puffs of ill wind. They kick walls, stick their legs through fence boards, get stuck up against the stall wall. Better Talk Now was retired for eight years – most of them in the same field – and got colic and died in June.
Welker was crushed when Ben’s Cat died. She’d seen him on television, admired him from afar, then saw him in person during a trip to Pimlico for Preakness Week. She introduced herself to Leatherbury, met the horse, fell in love again (and harder) and ultimately said she’d love to give him a home in retirement. Welker’s Spring Ridge Farm in Versailles fit the horse. There was turnout space, other retired racehorses, some broodmares and young horses to watch and get to know. Most importantly, there was someone who cared about the horse as if he belonged to her.
“It’s hard,” she said a week after Ben’s Cat died. “I have good days and bad days. I know he was happy, I know he got the best care a horse could get.”
But she doesn’t know why he got colic. Nobody does.
Everybody tried to do right by the horse. Leatherbury raced him for eight seasons, gave him winter breaks, brought him back slowly, spotted him in races he could win (he once told me Ben’s Cat was good enough to compete on the dirt more often, but that turf races were easier for him) and retired him when he wasn’t as good as he was. The Hall of Fame trainer announced the retirement decision June 26, and Ben’s Cat left Maryland for Kentucky two days later. He had seven good, amazing, beautiful days – he grazed, rolled, got regular baths, met a new buddy in Festus (whose racing career lasted seven starts and one win) and enjoyed a rare summer of leisure.
As long as I write about horses, I’ll put the telephone interview I had with Welker about Ben’s Cat – 16 minutes – alongside any. She talked while giving him a bath. He was loose with the shank on the ground. I could hear the water splashing off him. I could hear him shake it off with that satisfied noise happy horses make. A dog barked in the background. The whole thing sounded magical, like Ben’s Cat went to horse heaven.
And I guess he did.
When he died, we reacted as quickly as a monthly magazine can. We contacted the printer, who said we had a little time, re-did the cover, re-wrote the article and the August magazine went from happy to sad.
Ben’s Cat deserved better, there I wrote it. After a racing career like that, the noble, determined, smart, talented creature should have lived as long as any Thoroughbred ever. Instead, he gets to be a memory with a gravesite by the paddock at Laurel Park. Years from now, somebody will stop by that memorial and tell the story of Ben’s Cat. The sun will shine, there will be a little bit of a breeze (if it’s January there will be a lot of breeze) and the story teller will talk about the black horse with the orange blinkers who caused everybody to watch every time he set foot on the track.
And nobody will wonder why Ben’s Cat got colic.