02/02/2012 12:43PM

Star Guitar owner first lady of racing in Louisiana

Shannon Brinkman
Owner Evelyn Benoit, with Star Guitar, strikes a pose for a shoot at a makeshift photo set that was arranged near trainer Al Stall’s barn at Fair Grounds. The portrait now hangs in Stall’s office.

NEW ORLEANS — One day last year during the Fair Grounds race meeting in New Orleans, a crew showed up on the backstretch and, in a space between trainer Al Stall's barn and a neighboring outfit, installed a makeshift photo set. Lush flowers, sod, ornamental bushes − a lavish backdrop. Out of Stall's barn was led a horse who for five years has resided in stall No. 5, Star Guitar, who stood, barely bothered by the strange change in routine, for a couple of hours while a photographer crafted the perfect shot.

The resulting portrait now hangs in Stall's office. Assistant trainer Pam Fitzgerald held Star Guitar during the shoot, but she got Photoshopped out of the picture. The remaining human figure, beaming and bathed in light, is Evelyn Benoit, who bred Star Guitar and proudly campaigns him, and who has become the leading lady of Louisiana racing. For Mrs. Benoit, mere winner's circle photographs don't sufficiently capture her adoration of "Star," as she calls him. And there is little doubt that Evelyn Benoit enjoys getting involved in a glamour shot.

"Several years ago we were at a Saints game, in the suites, and we were walking through a crowd, me and my daughter," Benoit (pronounced BEN-wah) said in a recent interview in her suite at Fair Grounds. "This group of young men was lined up and they had to move to let us through, and I just knew they were looking at my daughter, because she's very attractive, and I heard one of them say, 'See that lady right there? She's got the fastest horses in the state.' Boy -- I was so proud that this old woman could be known like that."

Benoit, who declines to give her age, is the mother of five grown children (one of them, Tab Benoit, is a well-known blues guitarist), but she is the only person who would refer to herself as an "old woman." And despite the apparent enjoyment of making herself publicly known, Benoit is no hollow socialite. For five years, since her husband, Maurice, was terribly injured in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed, she has served as president of Benoit Machine Inc., a thriving company in the town of Houma, where Benoit was born and raised, that manufactures tubing used in the oil and gas industries.

"We have close to 200 employees at any one time," Benoit said. "The company is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I have my second-oldest son who works for me. Pretty much it's our life. The horses and my business and my husband are 24 hours. You have to be sharp and ready."

In Star Guitar, the result of three generations of Benoit's small but incredibly successful breeding operation, she has come up with a horse who will go down as one of the best Louisiana-breds ever.

Star Guitar is slated to start Saturday in the $200,000 Premier Night Championship at Delta Downs, a race he has won by open lengths the last three years. A win there and in one or two more stakes races, and Star Guitar, who has earned about $1.5 million, will pass Happy Ticket and become the richest Louisiana-bred.

Star Guitar is a horse who merits special photos. He has made 27 starts in a career dating to November 2007 and has won 21 of them. Facing Louisiana-bred competition, Star Guitar has won 19 races in 21 tries. He has won a race on the Louisiana-bred program's most important afternoon, Champions Day in early December at Fair Grounds, five consecutive years, including three straight victories in the Champions Day Classic. And at the ripe age of 7, Star Guitar has put together a seven-race winning streak.

Yes, Star Guitar has feasted on statebred-restricted purses for years, but rarely has a horse sat at the head of the table and dined so long and lustily.

"All we do is feed him, and he does the heavy lifting," said Fitzgerald, who stays with Star Guitar year round in Louisiana while Stall runs a string in Kentucky part of each racing season. "He's just all class. He always looks perfect, never gets skin disease, never looks bad. I don't think he's ever even had a temperature."

"He's not like other horses," Stall said. "He just does better."

There's another reason Benoit has grown so attached to her stable star. Star Guitar made his career debut Nov. 22, 2007, just a few weeks after Maurice Benoit's tragic accident. Benoit was driving alone down a stretch of highway near Raceland, La., on the way home to New Orleans, when a tractor trailer pulled out in front of him. Benoit's car went underneath the truck, and he was dragged about 100 yards down the road.

"I was at home cooking dinner," Evelyn Benoit said, "and I started getting crazy phone calls. 'Hey, what are you doing?' 'Are you home, are you dressed?' Because they were sending a group to come get me, and they didn't think he'd make it. From the neck down he was destroyed."

Maurice Benoit, who now lives at home with round-the-clock nursing care, spent three months in an intensive care unit. Almost a month into the ordeal, Evelyn still was grieving hard, trying to find a way back into a day-to-day life she'd known for decades that no longer existed. Before Maurice's accident, Evelyn had run her Thoroughbred business, raised her children, engaged in ventures like buying and restoring old homes in New Orleans. What drew her out of her deepest blue period after the wreck, she said, was Maurice's business, Benoit Machine, which had been founded in 1943 by Benoit's father.

"On the 27th day it hit me -- you cannot just sit here," she said. "You have a full team that's counting on you and your husband. That was a Friday. Saturday and Sunday I got my act together, and Monday I took over the business.

"These big oil companies that we work with, when they found out my husband wasn't involved, they didn't want to deal with a woman," Benoit said. "The Japanese, who I buy all my chrome from, they didn't even want to talk to me. They kept writing letters to my husband."

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Benoit Machine, its president says, is doing very well. But Benoit said the family business has not, for the most part, bankrolled her Thoroughbred operation, which goes by the name Brittlyn Stables -- "Britt" for one of Benoit's daughters, Brittany, and "lyn" for Evelyn.

"I guess you could say it has helped, but actually, we started Brittlyn with a $5,000 horse," Benoit said. "Everything we ever earned in the horse business we put back in the business."

Benoit grew up with five siblings on a decent-sized piece of property in Houma, where she rode ponies and pleasure horses. "I've loved horses since I was a child," she said. "It was always my business, the horses. It was my thing, not my husband's. It started out as a hobby, but it's become more of a business."

Benoit has bought some horses privately. Gantry, who has won two sprint stakes for trainer Ron Faucheux at the ongoing Fair Grounds meet, is one such recent purchase, as is the talented Louisiana-bred 3-year-old filly Sunday's Child. But the backbone of the Brittlyn operation has long been a small set of amazingly productive broodmares, of which there are two foundation mares, Zacado Zacado and Roaring Fireplace.

Benoit said she bought Zacado Zacado, her first broodmare, on a whim during the races at the old pre-fire Fair Grounds. The filly had just run poorly in a maiden race, and her owner was bemoaning Zacado Zacado's performance.

"The man was so upset after she ran, he looked like he was about to have a heart attack," Benoit said. "She was walking right in front of me, and I said, 'I like your little horse.' He said. 'If you like her so much, why don't you buy her?' I asked, 'How much?' and he said, 'For you, $5,000.' So I bought her while Maurice had gone off to the restroom."

Zacado Zacado won eight times and placed eight times in a 19-start career, but despite an obscure pedigree (her sire was a Bold Forbes horse named Buck N Bronc) it was her genes that proved valuable. Zacado Zacado, a foal of 1986, produced seven horses who raced, all winners, and two who earned more than $100,000. One $40,000 earner was X Strawdnair, who has turned out to be an awesome broodmare. Six of her foals, Louisiana-breds, have made the races, and all have won, their earnings totaling about $1.2 million. Four of X Strawdnair's foals are stakes winners -- the best of whom was Brother Bean, a four-time stakes winner − and another filly placed in multiple stakes. Three-year-old Beanwah'smachine, the most recent X Strawdnair offspring to race, has a 4-for-4 record, with wins this meet in the Champions Day Juvenile and the Louisiana Futurity.

Then there's Star Guitar's family. His dam is Minit Towinit, whose mother, Roaring Fireplace, Benoit bought as a broodmare prospect. Roaring Fireplace, another mare with little recognizable pedigree (her sire is Silent Dignity) once was purchased at a sale in Arkansas for $5,000, and Benoit bought her for roughly twice that amount. Minit Towinit, Roaring Fireplace's second foal to race, won two stakes and more than $100,000, not quite as successful as her sister, Lettuce Loose, who won three stakes and more than $150,000. But as a broodmare she produced four winners, three of them stakes winners, before foaling Star Guitar in 2005.

Benoit used to keep horses at her property in Houma, but now her mares live at Clear Creek Farm in Folsom, across the lake from New Orleans. She gets help in Kentucky from a bloodstock advisor, Dan Considine, at whose farm Benoit's mares board during the years they are permitted to be bred to Kentucky stallions. To retain Louisiana-bred standing, a mare must be bred to a Louisiana sire at least every other year. 

Minit Towinit was shipped to Kentucky from Louisiana to be bred to Quiet American in 2004, and her health was poor throughout the pregnancy, Benoit said. After as severe storm late in the summer of 2005, Minit Towinit was found dead in a field, with Star Guitar, just a few months old, still frolicking uncomprehendingly at her side.

Star Guitar, Benoit said, always stood out. Benoit doesn't believe in readying horses to race late in their yearling season, favoring a more patient approach that doesn't get serious with youngsters until they are well into their 2-year-old season, and it was during that period of Star Guitar's life that he began serious training.

"I remember when we breezed him for the first time," Benoit said. "We got up at 4 in the morning and drove from New Orleans to Lafayette and watched him work at Evangeline Downs. I called Al and said, 'I'm sending you the fastest horse I ever bred − the best horse I ever bred.' "

That statement distills the essence of Evelyn Benoit: Hyperbole mixed with surprising accuracy. Of all the good horses Benoit has bred, Star Guitar really is the best of them, and he's clearly one of the best Louisiana-breds of all time. But other than the Evangeline Mile, which he has won three times, Star Guitar hasn't won a race in open competition, though there have been excuses. He was seventh from a tough outside post in the 2009 New Orleans Handicap and third in the Grade 3 Alysheba at Churchill later that spring, his performance compromised slightly by a bruised foot that caused a missed workout. He tried two more graded stakes in 2010, finishing fourth in the New Orleans Handicap, then running fourth with a lesser performance in the Grade 3 Texas Mile.

Neither Benoit nor anyone in the Stall barn would hold these losses against Star Guitar, but one senses that for Benoit there is a feeling Brittlyn has something still to prove.

"For 30 years, I've heard over and over, 'You'll never have a graded stakes winner,' " she said. "Those things make you try harder.

"Star Guitar is the most special horse I've ever been around," she said. "If I live a million years I'll never have another horse like him. But I won't stop trying."

All-time leading Louisiana-bred earners

Star Guitar could take another step toward becoming the richest Louisiana-bred ever when he runs in Saturday's Premier Night Championship at Delta Downs.

1. Happy Ticket: $1,688,838
2. Star Guitar*: $1,515,862
3. Scott’s Scoundrel: $1,270,052
4. Superior Storm: $1,066,123
5. Costa Rising: $901,616
6. Zarb’s Magic: $893,946
7. Sarah Lane’s Oates: $888,295
8. King Roller: $883,588
9. Dixie Poker Ace: $850,127
10. Free Spirit’s Joy: $841,278