As senior vice-president for communications of both the Saints and Pelicans, Greg Bensel has done more than his share of scoreboard watching over the years.
But Saturday, Bensel will be experiencing it in a different role in a different sport.
As general manager for the Tom and Gayle Benson-owned GMB Racing, Bensel will be sweating out results from three races which will go a long way in determining if Tom’s Ready and Mo Tom will qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
The Bluegrass Stakes, the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby are three of the four remaining final Derby preps that will determine the qualifiers for the May 7 Kentucky Derby. The fourth — the Arkansas Derby — will be contested April 16.
Saturday’s triple-header begins at 4 p.m. and will air on the NBC Sports channel.
Tom’s Ready with 44 points and Mo Tom with 32 are 10th and 12th in the current standings. But last month’s Louisiana Derby, where they finished second and fourth, was their final opportunity to earn more points, while the Bluegrass, Wood and Santa Anita are each worth 170 points to their top four finishers (100-40-20-10), meaning the Benson horses can only move down.
The Derby field is capped at 20 and where a horse finishes in that 20 provides no advantage in the race itself.
“To be honest with you, I’m a nervous wreck,” said Bensel, at whose suggestion the Bensons got into the thoroughbred business two years ago. “I’ve reached out to anybody who will listen to me about what they think.
“You can drive yourself nuts looking at all of the potential situations. You realize how valuable these points are and they can add up very fast.”
Actually, Bensel — and the Bensons — probably shouldn’t be sweating things so much.
Although the points system to determine the Derby qualifiers is only in its fourth year so there’s not a lot of precedent, Tom’s Ready and Mo Tom fall well within the previous safe zones to finish in the top 20.
In 2013, Golden Soul with 14 points and Giant Fish with 10, were 19th and 20th. Golden Soul, trained by Dallas Stewart who also trains Tom’s Ready, went on to finish second to Orb in the Derby.
In 2014, Commanding Curve, also trained by Stewart, Harry’s Holiday and Vinceromas tied for the final three spots after two other qualifiers scratched. Commanding Curve finished second to California Chrome.
And last year, Keen Ice, who later upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers, and Frammento took the last two berths with 22 and 20 points.
But, as Bensel pointed out, there are so many variables that make nothing assured.
“All of that should make us relaxed, but I’m not relaxed,” he said. “What we need is the for the horses already ahead of our guys to keep doing well.
“And we sure don’t need a lot of new horses coming out of the blue.”
That means Bensel even finds himself semi-rooting against Mo Tom trainer Tom Amoss on Saturday.
Amoss trainee Crescent Drive is a 20-1 morning line long shot in the Bluegrass and has no Derby points. But winning would put Crescent Drive ahead of both Benson horses and a second-place finish would knock Mo Tom down a notch.
Others with a better chance to overtake the Tom’s Ready and Mo Tom without actually winning include 5-2 favorite Zulu (20 points) and Brody’s Cause (14).
Wood Memorial favorite Shagaf is already assured a Derby berth with 50 points, but Outwork (20) is in good position to secure a spot at well.
The situation is different in the Santa Anita where Keith Desormeaux-trained Exaggerator (26 points) is favored but other top choices Danzing Candy (50) and Mor Spirit (44) are on even safer ground than the Benson hopefuls.
Or long shots could surprise. A slew of them would have Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready on the bubble.
“I know we should be in the position to relax a little bit, but I’m not relaxed,” Bensel said. “All week long I’ve been wanting somebody to punch a hole in my thinking.
“I guess at this point there’s nothing to do but wait and see what happens.”