a tale of two eleven-year-olds

This evening, chatter on horse racing Twitter has been dominated by news of two eleven-year-olds.

Ben’s Cat has been retired.  Awesome Actor was entered to race this Thursday.

(Update, June 28, 2017: Erich Zimny from Charles Town has announced that Awesome Actor will not be allowed to run.  I am keeping the rest of this blog post intact, because I stand behind both my approval of how Ben’s Cat’s career was managed, as well as my trepidation over both Awesome Actor’s entry and the record of the owner under whose name he was entered.  But, I applaud Charles Town for having Awesome Actor scratched from Thursday’s race.)

By the end of December, 2010, Ben’s Cat had just finished his first year of racing.  He didn’t see the starter until May of that year, but by the end of his four-year-old season, he had won eight of nine starts, including the 2010 Mister Diz Stakes.  Over the next six and a half years, Ben’s Cat would win 24 more times, including five more editions of the Mister Diz.  He ran every year from ages four through eleven, and won stakes races through his ten-year-old year — including an improbable triumph in the 2016 Jim McKay Turf Sprint.

By the end of December, 2010, it seemed like Awesome Actor’s racing career had drawn to a close.  He debuted at Aqueduct at age two, graduated second out, and won five times across his three- and four-year-old seasons.  His form tailed off through the fall of that year; on December 23, 2010, he faded to last in a ten-horse field in a beaten $5,000 claimer at Charles Town.

Even at eleven, Ben’s Cat entering a race was cause for celebration.  Though he didn’t win this year, or even hit the board in three starts, his seasonal bow in April was a close and troubled enough outing to suggest he could still have been competitive against the same kinds of horses he had run against for years.1  After disappointing outings in the Jim McKay and the Mister Diz this year, owner and trainer King Leatherbury has decided Ben’s Cat doesn’t have it in him to beat that level of horse anymore.  He made the logical decision in light of that: Ben’s Cat is retired, and off to Kentucky to live the next chapter of his life.

At eleven, Awesome Actor entering a race causes not celebration, but alarm.  He hasn’t raced, at least in a sanctioned event, in six and a half years.  He has one published work leading into the race, a four-furlong breeze on June 24.  There are a few concerning pieces in current listed owner James W. King‘s history.  According to Equibase, he has only owned three other starters.  Jaqarundi Two turned up under his ownership when he was nine.  His last race had been a third-place finish about a month before, against reasonably similar company.  After a few off-the-board finishes?  Jaqarundi Two was laid off for over a year, returned on December 31 of his ten-year-old year, and struggled through his eleven- and twelve-year-old years.  The only other two horses to run under King’s ownership so far made their first starts for him first off of long layoffs.  Anasazi first started for him in December of 2010, at age six, after a fourteen-month lay; he missed the board in each of six starts over the next two years.  R J’s Racer raced once for King: a well-beaten 8th in a maiden claimer at Charles Town in September of 2000.  That was his first start since January of 1998.  None were laid off quite as long as Awesome Actor, but taken in the aggregate, this record makes one wonder how he gets his horses, or why he would decide to race them.

For Ben’s Cat, things went well.  He kept racing for as long as he was competitive at his level.  When a few races in a row suggested he no longer was, Ben’s Cat’s owner called an end to his racing days, and sent him sound to his next life.

Awesome Actor is not so lucky.  I don’t know what he was doing these last six and a half years, and don’t know why he has ended up back at the racetrack.  Though I try to give owners and trainers — the people who know their horses — the benefit of the doubt, I struggle to find any good reason to explain bringing a horse back to the rigors of racing at age eleven if they haven’t seen the starter since they were four.

I’m thrilled about Ben’s Cat’s immediate plans.

I feel trepidation about Awesome Actor’s.

***

An older horse does not have to be a stakes horse, of course.  Ben’s Cat was — that was his level.  But, a horse who is nine, ten, eleven years old who is happy and competitive in the claiming or starter ranks is great for the sport, too.  Consider Hapman, for one.  It’s just good to see an older horse with hallmarks of soundness: regular races, no precipitous class drops, and a track demeanour that suggests they still love their job.

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