05/18/2016 11:26AM

Ben's Cat tries to win Jim McKay Turf Sprint for fifth time

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Barbara D. Livingston
The 10-year-old Ben's Cat has won four of the last five runnings of the Jim McKay Turf Sprint.

Ben’s Cat has owned the Jim McKay Turf Sprint at Pimlico, winning four of the last five runnings. He comes into the five-furlong race Friday having won the last three editions of the race.

Ben’s Cat returned from his annual winter turnout May 1 with a determined neck victory after a wide trip in a no-conditions allowance at Laurel Park. He traditionally improves in his second start of the season and may well be favored while making his sixth consecutive appearance in the $100,000 McKay. Trevor McCarthy has the mount.

Still, Ben’s Cat is now 10, and he did have a down year in 2015, winning only 2 of 8 starts. He also will be facing a sharp and speedy rival in Rocket Heat, a 4-year-old who ran a career-best race while blazing five furlongs in 56.47 seconds to win the Twin Spires Turf Sprint on Kentucky Oaks Day.

King Leatherbury, the owner, trainer, and breeder of 31-time winner Ben’s Cat, expects a top effort in the McKay.

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“He tailed off pretty sharply last year, and a lot of people kind of thought that might be the end of his career, but he snapped back, so we’re very optimistic,” Leatherbury said. “This is the race we point for.”

Rocket Heat, trained by Vann Belvoir, shook free early in the Twin Spires under jockey Flavien Prat and will be very dangerous if he can do so again. Rocket Heat will face a quick rival in Big Guy Ian, trained by Michael Dilger.

Expected Ruler, a 3-year-old facing older rivals, is a possible sleeper. Expected Ruler won the Tyro Stakes at Monmouth Park in his career debut last summer for trainer Liam Benson. He comes into the McKay off a first-level allowance score at Keeneland.

Skipat: Fantastic Style heavy favorite

Fantastic Style is clearly the horse to beat in the $100,000 Skipat, a six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares.

Trained by Bob Baffert, Fantastic Style won the Grade 2 Las Flores at Santa Anita in March while returning from an eight-month layoff. In her most recent start, the Grade 2 Great Lady M. at Los Alamitos, she gamely held second after taking the lead but was run down late by longshot Finest City.

Fantastic Style has good speed but can also stalk, which could come in handy in this field, which includes front-runners Sweetrayofsunshine, Disco Chick, and Thirteen Arrows. The mid-90 Beyer Speed Figures that Fantastic Style has been running are by far the best in this group. Baffert has given the mount to Javier Castellano.

Trainer Mario Serey Jr. has Disco Chick in career form at age 5. She returned from a 3 1/2-month layoff this year with second-place finishes in Laurel Park stakes, both of which were won by the now-retired graded stakes winner Lady Sabelia.

Disco Chick won the My Juliet Stakes at Parx on May 7 over Four Inch Heels, who had won five races in a row but was returning from a five-month layoff.

If things get too hot on the front end, Sweet On Smokey could be the beneficiary. She ran well in the $150,000 Sugar Maple at Charles Town on April 23 but was shuffled back along the inside early and then came out and bumped with a rival entering the first turn. Laurel-based Claudio Gonzalez trains.

Hilltop: Big field is wide open

The $100,000 Hilltop Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for 3-year-old fillies, drew a competitive 14-horse field, plus two also-eligibles.

Favoritism could go to the Todd Pletcher-trained Spinamiss, who finished fourth, beaten three lengths by Catch a Glimpse, in the Grade 3 Appalachian at Keeneland. Catch a Glimpse has since stretched her win streak to six races by taking the Edgewood at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Oaks card.

Wessex won her debut at Gulfstream Park for trainer Bill Mott but will have to deal with the outside post in this bulky field. Mott is known for not pushing his horses the first time out, and over the past five years, he has won with only 7 percent of his debut runners. When one wins for the Hall of Famer, it is noteworthy.

Bold Contender, the third-place finisher behind Wessex, came back to win a Keeneland maiden race, and fourth-place Galileo’s Song has since won a maiden race at Belmont Park.

Princess Princess, trained by Ben Colebrook, finished sixth in the Appalachian, beaten only a half-length by Spinamiss. She will have to deal with post 13.