Maryland Jockey Club handicapper Frank Carulli made Ben’s Cat, the two-time defending champion of the race, the prohibitive 3-5 morning line favorite.
Leatherbury gave his star three months off to rest. Since returning, Ben’s Cat has four published works, including a bullet half-mile at Laurel Park Saturday morning when he stopped the clock in 48 seconds, the fastest of 50 works at the distance.
“He keeps amazing me,” said Leatherbury, who ranks third on the all-time win list with 6,337 victories. “I never thought he would get this good. He kept getting better and better and has never stopped.”
The son of Parker’s Storm Cat had to recover from a broken pelvis before he made his maiden debut at age four, and then began his career with eight consecutive victories, including five on the main track.
“It took me a long time to come to a conclusion to what was his best race,” added Leatherbury. “Was he a sprinter? Could he go long or was he better on the turf or dirt? I finally decided early last year that his best race was a sprint on the turf. He made me look good.”
Last year, Ben’s Cat won four sprint stakes on the turf: the Jim McKay Turf Sprint here on Preakness weekend, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup Handicap at Penn National, the G3 Turf Monster Handicap at Parx Racing and the Maryland Million Turf Sprint at Laurel. The 2011 Mister Diz was taken off the grass and run on the main track.
“I envision the same schedule as last year,” Leatherbury said. “We have the race the day before Preakness (Jim McKay Turf Sprint), the Grade 3 at Penn National, two big races at Philadelphia (Parx Racing) and the Maryland Million.”
The 79-year-old has conditioned two Grade 1 winners: Catatonic (1987 Hempstead Stakes) and Taking Risks (1994 Iselin Handicap), saddled four Preakness runners and other graded winners such as Ameri Valay, Learned Jake, Dynamic Trick and Ah Day.
“I have never had a horse like this,” added Leatherbury. “He is by an unknown sire. In fact they thought so little of him that they sold him and now he stands in Washington. This is one of those things you hit every now and then.”
Horacio Karamanos picks up the mount with regular jockey Jeremy Rose out with a dislocated right shoulder. Rose’s agent, John “Kid” Breeden, said he hopes his rider will be back aboard Ben’s Cat in the $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint here on May 18.
Delaunay (9-2) was entered to run on Thursday but trainer Dane Kobiskie scratched him to try this spot. Kobiskie claimed the Smoke Glacken offspring for $32,000 last month. It was the fourth time in his past four outings that Delaunay changed hands via the claim box. Delaunay has one win in four tries on the turf, an optional claiming win at Laurel Park last fall. Malcolm Franklin rides him for the first time.
Steady Warrior (6-1) won two stakes races in 2010 and finished second in the Maryland Million Turf Sprint Handicap last year, just a length behind Ben’s Cat. The Gary Capuano trainee has not raced since the Laurel Dash last October, a race won by Ben’s Cat. Forrest Boyce has the mount.
Dale Capuano trains multiple graded stakes winner Heros Reward (8-1), who has amassed earnings of $1.2 million. An eleven time winner on the grass, including a victory 2009 Mister Diz, the son of Partner’s Hero has three wins in five starts on the Pimlico turf. Erick Rodriguez will ride the 10-year-old.
Parx Racing shipper Dixie Notion (10-1) makes his first start on the turf on Saturday. Trainer Miguel Vera claimed the Great Notion gelding on March 19 and drilled him three furlongs at Parx on March 30. Richard Bracho will be aboard the 5-year-old.
Alston Gunter (20-1) has won five of his past nine starts. Another son of Great Notion, he tried Laurel Park’s turf course last time out and finished second against $11,500 claiming company. J.D. Acosta, who rode the Hugh McMahon trainee to two wins at Charles Town, regains the mount.
The Mister Diz is the 10th race on the Saturday program.