02/17/2016 3:36PM

Benson has a loaded deck with Risen Star-bound duo

Email
Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography
Mo Tom wins the Lecomte in January at Fair Grounds.

NEW ORLEANS – In 2014, Tom Benson hatched a plan to get back into horse racing after a decades-long break. Benson, a New Orleans native, owns the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans, along with local media outlets, a bunch of real estate, and pretty much anything else he might desire to buy. Benson came up working class and has come out upper crust. Most everything he’s touched has turned to gold, and despite the odds, that’s held true for his latest racing venture.

Benson and his wife, Gayle, bought eight yearlings in 2014. That was the start of the plan. In an ideal world, one of those yearlings would score a home-court win in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds and go on to race in the Kentucky Derby. In fact, two of them remain on that path.

Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready, both owned by Gayle Benson’s GMB Racing, finished one-two last fall in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, and they did it again last month in the Lecomte Stakes here at Fair Grounds, where the winner’s circle filled with more reporters and television crews than after the $1 million Louisiana Derby. The Bensons beamed as Mo Tom got his picture taken, and now GMB’s dynamic duo is back for Saturday’s Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star, with the Tom Amoss-trained Mo Tom likely the race’s second choice behind Airoforce, and Tom’s Ready, trainer Dallas Stewart believes, ready to move forward, too.

“Look, we’re looking to go 1-2 in any order in the Risen Star,” said Greg Bensel.

Bensel has worked for Benson for 21 years. His official job title is senior vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Saints and the Pelicans, but his morning work falls into a different realm.

“From 5 to 7 in the morning, I’m the GMB stable manager, talking to the trainers,” Bensel said.

Bensel used to manage a racing partnership called Last Mango Racing that included the singer Jimmy Buffett and several Saints players. “Kind of by osmosis on the periphery, Mr. Benson would hear about our horses, and at some point, he asked if we had anything left in the Last Mango. I told him no, and he said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s get back into it. Let’s get some horses and get the New Orleans boys going.’ ”

Benson some 40 years ago had operated a fairly large local stable managed by his son, Bob, but that dissolved when Bob got cancer and died. Now, Benson has a bolder concept. “The New Orleans Boys” are three trainers – Amoss, Stewart, and Al Stall – all born and raised, like Benson, in New Orleans. The Bensons gave each trainer a budget of $400,000 and told them to go to the yearling sales at Saratoga and Lexington and spend the money any way they saw fit. The horses each trainer chose for purchase would be sent to their stable after being broken and readied for the track.

“He drew up a whole plan, wrote it out, e-mailed it to all of us,” Stall said. “It was very well organized, and everyone was comfortable doing it. Mr. Benson said we’re the coaches – put together the team and win the Super Bowl.”

The three trainers took different approaches. Stall spent most of his allotted funds on one horse, a Smart Strike colt named Tom’s d’Etat who cost $330,000. Tom’s d’Etat chipped an ankle last year and hasn’t started, but he’s breezing again at Fair Grounds, and Stall thinks highly of him. Stall bought a second horse, a $60,000 Street Sense gelding named Saint Roch, who on Feb. 12 finished seventh in a $30,000 maiden claimer.

There were other misses, too. Saint Aloysius, a $140,000 Exchange Rate colt whom Stewart chose, had to be retired after being injured in his second career start last fall at Keeneland. The Stewart-trained Saint Ignatius, racing the same day as Saint Roch, made his second start and finished eighth in a maiden special weight race, and Lady Gayle, a second horse Amoss chose, recently was sold as a broodmare prospect after going 0 for 3 as a 2-year-old. But two graded-stakes-class 3-year-olds from a handful of prospects is a strike rate that any owner would accept.

Stewart bought Tom’s Ready at Saratoga’s Fasig-Tipton sale after the More than Ready colt failed to meet his reserve.

“I’ve had guys give me free rein before to buy, but not that much money,” Stewart said. “You have to think how you want to do it, and I decided to spread it out. Tom’s Ready, he was a real calm, straightforward-walking horse. I saw nothing negative about him. Everything was right on for me.”

Tom’s Ready debuted at Saratoga and ran fifth in the Grade 1 Hopeful as a maiden before developing steadily – other than a sloppy-track flop in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes – through the fall and winter.

Amoss, meanwhile, went to $150,000 to acquire Mo Tom, an Uncle Mo colt, at Keeneland’s September yearling sale in 2014. Mo Tom was tall and thin, a late foal with a lot of growing up to do, and he still looked that way when he came to Amoss last June.

“I kept telling myself that he’s a May foal,” Amoss said. “He was tall and underdeveloped, but he’s starting to develop now.”

Benson was born in 1927 in the St. Roch section of The Bywater neighborhood, a long way from all the old New Orleans money uptown. He joined the Navy, got a job selling cars, and step by step became one of the wealthiest people in this region. Another one-two finish Saturday in the Risen Star seems no more unlikely than that.