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Prominent Owner Tom Benson Dies

Owner of New Orleans Saints, Pelicans was active in Thoroughbred racing.

 

Tom Benson, a Louisiana sports icon who took his football and his basketball with a healthy side of horse racing, died March 15 at Oschner Medical Center in Jefferson, La., with his wife Gayle Marie Benson at his side. He was 90, and was hospitalized with the flu Feb. 16.

For all his success as owner of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, including the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV victory and a plaque in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, there was one sports trophy the Louisiana native joked he might not want to claim. As much as he loved Thoroughbreds, as a savvy businessman Benson recognized how horses pull you in.

Greg Bensel, general manager of the Benson family’s GMB Racing—who confirmed Benson’s death through his role as senior vice president of communications and broadcasting for the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans—spoke Wednesday at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association convention in New Orleans. He recalled how Benson approached the morning of the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), just two years after GMB Racing was formed.

“We’d rented a home in Louisville. At breakfast he said, ‘You know, Greg, I don’t know that I really want to win the Kentucky Derby today.’ I said, ‘Why is that, Mr. Benson? He said, ‘If we do win, we have to buy more horses, a farm, and really get into this,” Bensel said.

While they dabbled in racehorse ownership in the 1970s and 1980s, the Bensons returned to the sport after a multi-decade absence with renewed vigor in 2014, inspired by the rags-to-riches story of two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome .

“He said, ‘Greg, what would it take for us to get in the business?’ I said, ‘Why don’t you give me a check for $2 million—that will be a start—and we’ll go out and hit the Keeneland September sale and we’ll buy some horses,'” Bensel said.

From their first modern crop of yearlings, they campaigned not one, but two starters in the 2016 Kentucky Derby—graded stakes winner Mo Tom (eighth for trainer Tom Amoss) and multiple graded stakes winner Tom’s Ready  (12th for trainer Dallas Stewart).

“We finished eighth and 12th, which I thought was respectable, but he ended up buying more horses and one of the most beautiful farms I’ve ever been on,” Bensel said, mentioning Benson Farm at Greenwood Lodge in Paris, Ky., home to a broodmare and boarding operation.

“We had tremendous, uncanny success. He realized that was not the norm in this business,” Benzel said. “It started out as a hobby for us, and now it’s nearly a $21 million business.”

Benson was born Thomas Milton Benson Jr., on July 12, 1927, in New Orleans. The son of Thomas Milton Benson Sr. and Carmelite Marie Pintado Benson, he was raised in the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans and graduated from St. Aloysius High School (now Brother Martin High School) in 1944.

Benson enrolled at Loyola University New Orleans to study business and accounting. He interrupted his education to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to the USS South Dakota. Upon the conclusion of World War II, he returned to New Orleans and continued his business administration studies.

In 1948, Benson went to work as a bookkeeper for the Cathey Chevrolet Company in New Orleans, and by 1956, at age 29, was on his way to managing a Chevrolet dealership as a junior partner. Six years later, he took full control of the company and established a multi-dealership organization, with outlets throughout the New Orleans area and South Texas. In 1972, Benson entered the banking business and eventually took his banking network public as Benson Financial World.

In 1985, Benson purchased the New Orleans Saints after learning that the NFL franchise was on the verge of being sold to parties interested in relocating the team. He purchased the Saints on May 31, 1985. In 2012 Benson purchased the New Orleans Hornets NBA franchise and renamed it the New Orleans Pelicans the following season.

Through his sports teams, business interests, and the Gayle and Tom Benson Foundation, Benson was dedicated to assisting myriad charitable, faith-based, and educational causes in the New Orleans and South Texas communities. Under Benson’s direction, his businesses and sports teams annually have put millions of dollars back into the community in financial support, in-kind donations, charitable appearances, and the donations of goods and services.

“It is a sad day for Louisiana. Thank you for everything you have done for our state, our country, and the sport of horse racing,” Amoss said of Benson, in a statement posted on his Twitter account. “It is hard to put into words what you have meant to all of us. I am honored to have been a small part of your story.”

Details regarding public visitation and funeral will be forthcoming.

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MO TOM RETIRED TO STUD IN LOUISIANA

By Eric Mitchell

Tom and Gayle Benson’s grade 3 winner Mo Tom has been retired from racing and will enter stud this year at Jay Adcock’s Red River Farm near Coushatta, La. A stud fee has not been determined.

The 5-year-old son of Uncle Mo—Caroni, by Rubiano, was among the first yearlings the Bensons purchased for their GMB Racing operation in 2014, and one of two that found their way to the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) starting gate. The other runner was Tom’s Ready, who is also entering stud this year at Spendthrift Farm.

“Mo Tom has had a nice racing career. Even though he suffered through some tough trips and a few injuries, he was still able to make nearly $700,000 in earnings,” said Greg Bensel, who manages GMB Racing for the Bensons. “We tried to do a few things with him late in his racing career—like bringing him back quickly in the Clark Handicap (G1) and then trying him on the grass. We just did not want to give up on him; he is such a great-looking, sound horse and was working great in the mornings. None of those late experiments should take away from the career he had as a racehorse.”

A half brother to grade 1-placed stakes winner Beautician and listed stakes winner Bella Castani, Mo Tom won or placed 10 times out of 19 starts. He won twice and placed twice out of four starts at 2, which included winning the Street Sense Stakes and a third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2). He earned his stripes in a graded stakes in his first start at 3 when he won the Lecomte Stakes (G3). The colt went on to place in the Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes (G2), finish eighth in the Kentucky Derby, and win the Ohio Derby.

“With our farm in Paris, Ky., and our sports teams in New Orleans we keep a very busy schedule, but when time allows we love going to the track to see our horses run. Our racing operation has had great success on the track and we could not be more proud of our team and our trainers Tom Amoss, Dallas Stewart, and Al Stall,” said Gayle Benson, whose husband owns New Orleans’ NFL Saints and NBA Pelican sports teams. “We are building our farm operation (Benson Farm at Greenwood Lodge) in Kentucky where we have a very nice broodmare band. We are loving the horse business.”

The Bensons sent Mo Tom to Red River Farm because they valued Adcock’s reputation as a successful breeder, and because they want to support the Louisiana- bred program.

“We are very excited to get this horse,” Adcock said. “He was a serious horse at 3 and a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. He is a good-looking, accomplished horse with plenty of family. He’ll get every chance to be successful.”

“Having a nice son of Uncle Mo here should bring some attention to the attractive breeding programs we have here in Louisiana,” Bensel added.

The Bensons are retaining 20% ownership of Mo Tom.

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