NEW ORLEANS — Thoroughbred owner Evelyn Benoit is fiercely proud of Louisiana-bred horses, including ones that emerge from her own local stable, Brittlyn. She’s so proud, in fact, that she gets irritated when racing pundits from other parts of the country put down Pelican State mounts.
That’s why she hopes her latest prized horse, the 3-year-old colt, Sunbean, wins Saturday’s 100th running of the $1 million Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds despite being a long shot.
“You never know,” Benoit said. “Never count anybody out. Never give up. You don’t know what (Sunbean) represents. I hope to God he can win the race and show people the stuff Louisiana is made of. We wanted to be in the Louisiana Derby, because it’s the Louisiana Derby, and it never has any Louisiana horses in it.
“They’ve been discounting (Louisiana racing) for so long,” she said. “I have nerves of steel right now. People always talk down about Louisiana breeding. I hope we can shut them up about Louisiana racing. We’ll show that you need more than bluegrass to win in this sport.”
In the four races Sunbean has been in — all at the Fair Grounds, and all against other Louisiana-breds — he’s won three of them, including the Dec. 31 Louisiana Futurity and the Feb. 23 Gentilly Stakes. In all, Sunbean has more than $130,000 in earnings, giving him a solid claim as 2013’s Louisiana favorite.
His team includes Fair Grounds Hall of Fame trainer Al Stall Jr. and jockey Colby Hernandez. The mount put in a solid morning work Saturday, covering a half-mile in 48.20 seconds and 5?8 of a mile in 1:02 flat.
“He had awesome work this morning,” Stall said Saturday. “He showed us he’s the horse we think he is.”
Tuesday, Stall announced that he and Benoit had nominated Sunbean for the Triple Crown series. Stall also nominated the other horse he has in the Louisiana Derby, the undefeated Departing, owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider.
But it’s Sunbean many locals will be rooting for Saturday in the hopes that he can become the next Star Guitar, another Brittlyn Stable product who became the Fair Grounds’ all-time Louisiana-bred earnings leader and who was inducted into the track’s Hall of Fame earlier this month.
“Sunbean is a very good horse with a lot of potential,” Fair Grounds Vice President and General Manager Eric Halstrom said. “Some local horses are a bit over their head, a novelty act. That’s not the case with Sunbean.”
He said Sunbean is another beneficiary of the Benoit-Stall partnership, especially the steady conditioning hand of Stall, who Halstrom said is one of the best local trainers the Fair Grounds has seen.
Stall’s excellence as a conditioner was inherited from his father, Al Stall Sr., another Fair Grounds Hall of Famer, who began teaching Stall the ropes of horse racing as soon as the junior Stall could walk. Such inherited skills make Stall Jr. a source of pride for Fair Grounds regulars.
“He’s certainly one of the very highest-quality trainers we have,” Halstrom said. “He’s very well respected around the country. He’s a local guy who grew up at the Fair Grounds. We all have a soft spot for that.”
But Stall credits Sunbean for the colt’s constantly emerging potential, thanks to the 3-year-old’s personality. While Star Guitar had a very playful side, both Stall and Benoit said Sunbean is all business.
“He’s very straight-forward,” Stall said of the horse. “He’s very consistent on a daily basis, and in a very good way.”
Sunbean might be a hometown hero, but the horse will not be a novelty in the Louisiana Derby.
“That’s not why we’re doing it,” Stall said. “We wouldn’t endanger a horse like that. We’re doing it because we think he can win. Period.”