Tom Benson and Gayle Benson are “thrilled.” Sean Payton is downright “giddy.”
And all of it feels so ... familiar.
Yes, as it turns out, the night before your first Kentucky Derby is very much like the night before your first Super Bowl.
That’s a comparison the Bensons and their New Orleans Saints/New Orleans Pelicans/GMB Racing family are now uniquely qualified to make. The Bensons own two horses that are set to run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby -- Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready -- both medium to long shots in the 20-horse field.
“It’s like the night before the Super Bowl. And the anticipation's there, and the excitement that we’re feeling is there,” said Greg Bensel, the Saints’ VP of communications, who also runs racing operations for GMB.
Their large contingent this week at Churchill Downs has included the likes of Saints coach Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and many others.
Even the atmosphere feels familiar.
“There’s people walking around here with Saints shirts on, and there were people yelling ‘Who Dat,’” Bensel said of Friday’s experience at the Kentucky Oaks races. “It’s just real similar.”
Bensel, the one who labeled Payton as “giddy,” said the coach has embraced his role as a fan this time around after he was the one who had every detail covered during the Saints’ run to the Super Bowl six years ago. He pointed to the custom-painted shoes that Payton is planning to wear, as featured by NOLA.com on Friday.
Other NFL owners have moonlighted in horse racing before. Former Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson once had a horse run in the Kentucky Derby. Former San Diego Chargers owner Gene Klein owned a Derby winner, Winning Colors, after he had sold the NFL team. In recent years, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair and New York Giants executive Chris Mara have had ownership stakes in Derby participants.
But one thing that makes the Bensons’ story so unique is that this is essentially their rookie year. They decided to get into the horse-racing game less than two years ago, with Gayle Benson as the official owner (GMB stands for Gayle Marie Benson).
For two of the yearlings they bought in 2014 to emerge as Kentucky Derby contenders is “miraculous,” said Mo Tom’s trainer, Tom Amoss.
Another thing that makes GMB Racing so special is the way it was set up as a sort of New Orleans dream team, with a trio of standout trainers and New Orleans natives -- Amoss, Dallas Stewart (who trains Tom’s Ready) and Al Stall Jr.
Stewart, who learned under the great D. Wayne Lukas, has seen two horses finish second in the Kentucky Derby in the past three years (Golden Soul in 2013 and Commanding Curve in 2014) and another finish second in last year’s Preakness (Tale of Verve).
Amoss has trained four other Derby horses, including Mylute, which finished fifth in 2013.
“They’re all big Saints fans, they’re all season-ticket holders, they’re all from New Orleans, and they’re all top-flight trainers in the industry,” Bensel said. “So it was easy pickings for us."
Each trainer was given a budget of $400,000 to spend on as many horses as he chose, with the freedom to oversee their training and development. Amoss said he’s never had so much leeway with a horse. Stewart agreed that the setup is rare, and said it has worked out great, with no egos getting in the way.
“We’re all competitive, that’s what we do every day,” Stewart said. “But it’s not like we’re out to beat one another. ... If I can’t win it, I’m pulling for [Amoss], and I’m sure he’s the same way. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
Tom’s Ready hasn’t been a dominant horse so far, but Stewart is confident that he is on schedule to peak at the right time.
“I felt like after the Louisiana Derby, he had to get a little bit better ... better, stronger, more focused. I felt like he has,” Stewart said. “If it’s gonna be good enough, we’re gonna find out. That’s why we run 'em.”
Mo Tom, meanwhile, generated a lot of buzz early in the year before being run into traffic in two disappointing races, including the Louisiana Derby. But Amoss said Mo Tom is the best 3-year-old he has ever trained. And after he slid into the 20th and final spot because of another horse’s defection, Amoss can’t help but believe that fate is playing a key role.
“I truly, without sounding spiritual, I put my head on my pillow at night, and I think about all the things that have occurred to make this happen, and it’s almost too coincidental,” Amoss said. “I’m not trying to predict the outcome of the Kentucky Derby when I say these things, but I’m just talking about getting in the starting gate. I used the word miraculous earlier, and I used it on purpose. Because that’s what this is. It’s really been a miraculous and a wonderful journey to this point.”