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Saints Owner Benson Back in Racing Game in a Big Way

Mr and Mrs Benson after a Saints VictoryThere's a new love in Tom Benson's life these days. 

Walk into his office, turn to the left and the prominent pictures on the wall aren't of the New Orleans Saints or the Pelicans. They're pictures of horses.

There's Si Cima, a stakes winner in the '70s, who once was the best horse Benson ever owned. Next to him is Mo Tom, who already has taken over that title despite being just 3 years old.

Mo Tom is not only favored in Saturday's Louisiana Derby, but he has a shot to put Benson in an exclusive club: A Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby-winning owner.

It's no wonder he's got the spot of honor on the wall.

"I must like horses," Benson cracked, looking at the photos on Thursday afternoon. "I've got their pictures close to my wife's."

Despite jokes the horses were overtaking photos of Benson's wife Gayle, it's clear this has been something the two enjoy together.

"The horse racing business is very exciting," Tom Benson said. "It's like a football game, where you're in the last quarter and the game is tied up, and you need another touchdown to win the game. It's the same feeling. You get just as excited with the horses."

And, at the moment, the business is profitable, something Gayle Benson joked that she didn't think happened in Tom's first foray into the business.

"I think this is the first time Tom has been in the horse business where it has actually made money," said Gayle Benson. "So he's in the black."

"Not much," Tom Benson immediately added, laughing. "But it's better than being way down there."

The money isn't as important as the fun of the pursuit for the Bensons. The business was once a family affair for him, and now it is again.

Long before he owned the Saints or the Pelicans, he and his son Robert 'Bob' Benson (born during Tom Benson's marriage to first wife Shirley) teamed up in the racing business. Si Cima was their best result.

But when Bob died of cancer in 1986, Tom Benson's heart wasn't in it anymore. He had owned the Saints for a year at that point and had other interests. Horses faded to the background.

"My son died, and when he did ... he was involved in this thing, and when he died, I just said I'm not going to have anything to do with it anymore," Tom Benson said.

Over the years, it all started to come back. Gayle and Tom traveled to Saratoga Race Course together in the summer. They spent afternoons at the Fair Grounds. Racing became fun again.

"I enjoyed going to the track," Tom Benson said. "We're not big bettors or anything, but we enjoy going out there, making a few bets, and seeing the horses run."

Added Gayle Benson: "We just enjoyed going out there, and we still do."

The Bensons took note of the conditions at the Fair Grounds during their outings there in 2013. Motivated by what they perceived to be a decline, they even looked into buying the facility.

However, such a move was prohibited by NFL rules, which does not allow owners to have interests in gambling facilities.

"We had to either stay in the football business or run horses," Benson said. "I've been in that too long, football, to do that now ...

"So that's why we, at the time, didn't look (to buy it). We paid attention more to the horses rather than the track."

It was around that time the Bensons looked into another way to stay involved. The interest in buying racehorses was born from a conversation during Saints training camp in 2014.

Benson was sitting in his office at the The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia with Saints president Dennis Lauscha and Greg Bensel, the team's vice president of communications, chatting about horses. He remarked how much fun he used to have owning horses and wondered about getting back into the business.

A new venture was quickly born.

"If we were to win, all of Louisiana would be happy," - Tom Benson

"We just happened to be talking about the horses and he said 'Greg, I'd like to get back into it,'" Bensel said. "Everybody knows his history of having horses with Billy Fox back in the day. We kind of encouraged him a little bit and he said, 'Let's do it.'"

It was as easy as that.

They decided on a name, GMB Racing, for Gayle Marie Benson. Gayle chose the colors blue, white and gold for their silks, representing the Virgin Mary as a nod to their catholic roots.

"We decided that we wanted to honor her with her colors," she said.

Soon after the initial conversation, the Bensons had decided on their trainers -- Tom Amoss, Al Stall Jr., and Dallas Stewart, three local trainers, lifelong New Orleanians and naturally, Saints fans.

Each was given a budget of $500,000 to spend how they pleased. Seven horses were purchased between the three trainers at the fall sale in Keeneland, Ky., that September.

"In the back of everyone's minds was the Kentucky Derby," Amoss recalled. "I guess that mission has been tried ... by just about everybody that goes to the sale. So I don't really know what other guys are thinking, meaning Al or Dallas, but for myself, I said 'Well, we'll do the best we can.'"

The Bensons, knowing they were relatively new to the modern world of horse racing, let the trainers condition the horses as they saw fit. While all seven haven't panned out, the best two Amoss' Mo Tom and Stewart's Tom's Ready, purchased for $170,000 and $145,000, respectively, now look like bargains. 

Twice now, they've run 1-2 in stakes races, with Mo Tom winning the Street Sense as a 2-year-old and the LeComte in January.

With post positions drawn right next to each other for Saturday's Louisiana Derby, the Bensons could only hope the colts come charging down the Fair Grounds homestretch together once more. 

"It gets exciting," Tom Benson said. "Those two or three minutes, it sure gets you pumped up."

It would be easy to think that few sporting victories could be as exciting as winning a Super Bowl, which Benson accomplished with the Saints in 2009. But the Bensons have quickly invested themselves in their team of horses as much as they have in their other teams. 

The Bensons said they know how fortunate they are to be in this position. Horse racing is a fickle game. Money can't buy wins in a sport where $4 million Fusaichi Pegasus and $35,000 I'll Have Another are both Kentucky Derby winners.

"Just to have this opportunity is outstanding. You can't ask for more than that, but now you've got to produce," Tom Benson said. "Whether it's horse racing, or anything else, if you can get into the Derby, or get into the playoff, it's up to us to produce a winner."

If there's one regret Benson has about re-entering the business, it's only that Bob can't share it with him.

"It's been a long time since he died unfortunately, about 30 years at least," Tom Benson said. "As time goes by you sort of put that in the back of your head, rather than the front. Certainly I'd like him to be here to see this. He just really loved it."

What would it mean to him to win the Kentucky Derby? Benson views it just like he viewed bringing a Super Bowl to New Orleans.  

"If we were to win, all of Louisiana would be happy," he said.

In the late 1980s, right after Benson got out of the business, New Orleans-based Risen Star took the racing world by storm, winning both the Preakness and Belmont.

Owned by local car dealer Ronnie Lamarque and Louie Roussel, who also owned the Fair Grounds at the time, Risen Star was considered the pride of Louisiana.

Risen Star never won the Kentucky Derby like his dad Secretariat, and no Louisiana-based horse has been able to rise to such heights since.

So if Mo Tom or Tom's Ready could capture the roses, Tom Benson thinks it would be a proud moment for New Orleans.

"I think it would be great for our city, I really feel that way," he said. "We've got a nice racetrack here and people will see that horse racing is a good thing."

And, he promised, he'd even do the famous Benson Boogie.

"Oh yeah, I'll be ready. I'll dance all the way back here!" he said.

-from www.nola.com

 

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