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.