LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The traveling party wasn’t supposed to be this big.
Sure, there’s excitement in New Orleans — particularly at the compound the Saints and Pelicans share in Metairie — about Tom and Gayle Benson’s two horses in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
But Tom Benson, owner of both of the city’s major pro franchises, got more buzz than he bargained for.
“People are so excited about this. I am the calmest one,” Benson said this week. “We started by inviting a few people, and then we said, ‘We can’t scratch that one,’ and that’s how we ended up with another 30.”
All told, about 55 Saints and Pelicans employees — including general manager Mickey Loomis and Saints coach Sean Payton — are expected to be at Churchill Downs to cheer on Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready, both owned by the GMB stables owned by the Bensons and named for wife Gayle.
The sheer size of the thoroughbreds’ following has given the week a New Orleans flavor. The sense is that the large contingent here represents the feeling of some fans back home.
“I think the city and the state, the idea that there’s two, everyone has a rooting interest,” Payton said. “The weeks leading up to this has been exciting for everyone, and both these guys have run well.”
If Louisiana is looking for a rooting interest Saturday, the Benson horses provide it, and that’s by design.
Tom Benson said it was “very important” to him and his wife to have a strong Louisiana influence in the stable’s first trip to the Kentucky Derby.
Mo Tom trainer Tom Amoss is a New Orleans native who divides his year between his hometown and Louisville. Tom’s Ready trainer Dallas Stewart — who has trained two of the past three Derby runners-up — is from McComb, Mississippi, but makes his home in New Orleans for part of the year. Both trainers are Saints season-ticket holders.
“We get along real great, the fact that they cheer for the Saints and (train) the horses,” Tom Benson said. “We got a basketball team (the Pelicans). They forgot that one, but that’s all right. Two out of three, you know, that’s not bad.”
Jockeys Corey Lanerie, who will ride Mo Tom, and Brian Hernandez, on Tom’s Ready, were born in Lafayette.
Those local ties make the Derby horses “part of New Orleans and part of Louisiana,” Gayle Benson said.
Neither horse has inspired confidence among handicappers. As of early Friday evening, Mo Tom was an 18-1 shot to win, and Tom’s Ready was 41-1.
That hasn’t dampened the Louisiana contingent’s enthusiasm.
“We’re going after it, man,” Tom Benson said.
As you might expect, both trainers exuded confidence as the week progressed. Tom’s Ready has had good workouts and a “perfect” appetite this week, Stewart said Friday morning.
“I can’t see anything to improve on right now,” he said.
Amoss has been excited about Mo Tom, who ran another quick pace in Friday’s workout.
“I think you get a real glimpse of what kind of stride he has,” Amoss said.
The GMB horses hardly are alone in having Louisiana ties at this Kentucky Derby. Exaggerator — a 5-1 shot, which trails only favorite Nyquist (2-1) — is trained by Louisiana native Keith Desormeaux and ridden by his brother Kent, the Hall of Fame jockey. Destin (18-1) is owned by Twin Creeks Racing Stable, a joint venture of friends Steve Davison and Randy Gullatt, who grew up in Ruston. Gun Runner (9-1) is seeking to become the first horse to win both the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby, joining Grindstone in 1996.
But no horse is more connected to New Orleans and Louisiana than the Bensons’ pair.
Saturday’s field is considered wide open and potentially fast-paced, which could play to the strengths of both GMB horses, whom their trainers view as strong finishers.
And if a Benson horse beats the odds to bring home a championship from one leg of racing’s Triple Crown?
“We’ll have another parade,” Stewart said. “We got a parade for everything down there. We’ll have another parade.”