Trainer Tom Amoss would have understood if Gayle Benson, just weeks after burying her husband of 14 years last spring, had wanted to skip the walk from the barn to the paddock with Lone Sailor, the thoroughbred they were racing in the Kentucky Derby.
At the time, a ceremonial walk before a horse race — even one as big as the Derby — didn't much compare to the size of her loss and the challenge that lay before her: taking the reins of the New Orleans Saints and the rest of a billion-dollar business empire Tom Benson had amassed.
But when Amoss arrived at the barn that day, Benson was already there. She was ready to trudge through the rainsoaked, mudlogged track at Churchill Downs with her horse, as the huge crowd expected, and as Tom would have done.
“The lesson that I probably already knew — but got to see first-hand — is that she wasn’t going to be afraid to get her hands dirty,” Amoss said. “Is it different than Mr. Benson? … Let’s say their styles are similar.”
By all accounts, after her husband’s death at age 90 a year ago this past Friday, Gayle Benson has so far shown a steady hand at the controls of the business empire her husband spent a lifetime developing.
Those who work closely with her said in interviews that the results speak for themselves:
Lone Sailor and other horses in the stable have either won or placed highly in important races in their current season.
The Saints would very likely have made their second trip to the Super Bowl this year had it not been for one of the worst officiating flubs in NFL history.
Dixie Beer, which the Bensons acquired two years ago, announced plans in August to open a brewery and restaurant in New Orleans East that they hope will revitalize both the brand and an area hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.
The philanthropic donations that became staples of the Bensons' marriage have continued in a big way, with Jesuit High School receiving $5 million last month to overhaul its gymnasium and Second Harvest Food Bank getting $3.5 million on Friday to support its fight against hunger.
She has left in place the team of confidants and executives that Tom Benson, during years of advanced planning, entrusted with helping her following his death.
And while there are more challenges ahead, most notably with the New Orleans Pelicans amid the coming loss of star player Anthony Davis and long-simmering questions about their future in the Crescent City, those confidants say Benson has already shown an ability to fill her late husband's shoes.
"I think Tom Benson would be very, very proud of Gayle," said Doug Thornton, a top executive of the company that manages the state-owned Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center. "I really, truly believe that."
Decisions on the Pelicans are likely the most pressing. One season removed from a second-round playoff appearance, the club is on track to miss the postseason this year. And for many fans, the season is already worth forgetting amid the trade demand from superstar Davis and the subsequent firing of General Manager Dell Demps.
The president of Benson’s two sports franchises, Dennis Lauscha, said a plan is being drafted with an eye to making the Pelicans as competitive as the Saints have been since the 2006 arrival of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
Because that's what Gayle Benson wants, despite persistent rumors in the national media that it is only a matter of time before she sells the NBA club, setting the stage for a relocation to another city.
“She’s not selling. She’s not moving,” Lauscha said in a recent interview. “This basketball team is going to be in this market for as long as she owns these teams, and her goal is to make these teams prosper … to persuade whoever the (next) owner is that this market can support both.”
Angela Hill, the New Orleans broadcasting legend who’s been close to Gayle Benson for years, remembers her friend being “beyond sad” in the days after Tom died from complications of the flu on March 15, 2018.
And to some, it may have seemed that the flurry of tasks she had to shoulder while grieving was oppressive.
News coverage of her husband’s passing recounted the brutal legal battle that erupted when, in 2015, Tom Benson unveiled his plans to cut his daughter and grandchildren from a previous marriage out of his life and his businesses to make Gayle his heir.
There were questions about what might happen after his death. There still are, as long-shot legal maneuvers from Tom Benson's estranged relatives could still be possible.
Still, Gayle Benson, 72, remained at least publicly steadfast. She greeted each of the thousands of visitors who attended the public visitation for her husband — who bought the Saints in 1985 and New Orleans' NBA team in 2012 — at Notre Dame Seminary.
Then, with New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond at her side, she hosted a who’s who of sports world personalities who attended the March 23, 2018, funeral at St. Louis Cathedral.
Following the services, a second-line parade through the French Quarter drew thousands of onlookers, and Benson memorably held a hand to her heart as she waved at as many of them as she could.
There were sports stars and political leaders, rousing brass band music and "Who Dat" chants from a crowd thousands strong as Saints and Pelic…
Rather than leaving the widow overwhelmed, Hill said, the outpouring of tributes for her husband helped revive Benson’s spirit as she turned her attention toward leading the various businesses her husband built.
She didn’t have much down time.
The day after the funeral, Lone Sailor placed an improbable second in the Louisiana Derby at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. The result earned the horse a highly coveted spot in the Kentucky Derby.
And, despite her grieving, Gayle Benson — a former interior designer who since her marriage had spent years participating in sports owners’ gatherings alongside Tom — was paying attention.
That night, she sent a text to Amoss, Lone Sailor’s trainer, congratulating him on a job well done.
“With everything that’s going on, she knew that horse was important — not only to the Fair Grounds, but to the patrons of the Fair Grounds,” said Amoss, who has the text saved.
Benson and her GMB Racing team then headed to Louisville, Kentucky, for the first of the three Triple Crown races. Lone Sailor finished in eighth place on the rain-soaked track. But Gayle Benson’s showing for the traditional walk was a morale boost for the team members.
And before Hill knew it, she and her longtime friend were back to having the lunches they had often shared.
“Now looking back, she was very wise in keeping very busy those first weeks,” Hill said. “Having that sense of purpose was great for her to get over those first weeks of sadness.”
A smooth transition
There have been scores of decisions to make over the year concerning her various businesses, not least those involving Dixie Beer. But many would measure Gayle Benson’s first year in charge by the outcome of the Saints’ season.
Fortunately, the Saints were killer. The early weeks brought an offensive onslaught, and as the season grew longer, the defense turned on as well as the wins stacked up. The Saints captured a second straight division title for the first time in franchise history, winning 13 regular-season games for only the third time.
She marched onto the Superdome turf and led the pre-game "Who Dat" chant the afternoon of the NFC title game against the Rams — before disaster struck.
The officials’ failure to call an obvious pass-interference penalty late in the game denied the Saints a chance to take the lead while leaving almost no time for the Rams to respond.
The Rams won in overtime, the New Orleans area melted down, and a season that looked primed to possibly match the unforgettable 2009 Super Bowl title campaign ended in controversy.
New Orleans Congressman Cedric Richmond publicly discussed bringing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Capitol Hill for questioning.
Lauscha said Benson hurt deeply after visiting with each of her players after the final whistle blew.
The course of their lives — as well as those of the Saints' coaches, executives and fans, and Benson herself — had been unjustly altered, said Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis.
But Benson knew becoming unhinged wasn’t an option, Loomis said.
The Saints hadn’t been the first team to experience a bad officiating call, nor would they be the last. And knowing that, she issued her directive to Loomis and the rest of the Saints: Push for a change in the rules governing the instant review of officiating decisions and try to avenge the debacle on the field next season.
“She’s handled this in a realistic and productive manner,” Loomis said during an interview amid the frenzy of the Saints’ free agency signings. “She’s been compassionate when she needed to be. She’s been strong when she needed to be. And players appreciate her grace.”
Meanwhile, those close to her said, Benson has left her fingerprints on other key decisions that haven’t drawn a bevy of headlines.
As one of the sports world’s few female owners, Benson didn’t want to stand by as the female members of NFL dance teams complained of demeaning treatment, said Hill. So Benson asked for changes on the Saintsations. The bare midriffs and bikini tops of the past were replaced with one-piece uniforms. The annual swimsuit calendar was spiked.
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For the second straight year, the Saints ranked No. 1 in the NFL’s overall gameday experience satisfaction survey.
Doug Thornton, leading the group in charge of managing the Superdome, said that achievement — in a 43-year-old building — is no small feat.
Benson intends to rack up as many first-place finishes as possible in such categories, he said.
Thornton said he can’t attend a Saints or Pelicans game without Benson following up on discussions on potential renovations to the Dome, such as field-level seats and windows on the stadium's exterior.
He had the same types of conversations with Tom Benson.
“She would be the first to say her job was to ensure the transition was smooth,” Thornton said. “And it was.”
Given the breakneck speed with which pro sports move, Benson knows the Saints can’t ease up.
Drew Brees is locked in for the upcoming season, but at age 40, a switch at quarterback is closer than ever. And the perennial rumors that Sean Payton could move on from New Orleans sooner rather than later are swirling again.
Lawsuit still possible
The relatives Benson removed from his succession plan have kept a low profile since the last of their legal disputes with their family patriarch was settled. But even though such a case is considered by many to be an uphill battle, Louisiana law affords them roughly four more years to challenge the validity of the will that left control of the Benson business empire solely to Gayle.
Benson’s legal advisers, though, are confident that the plan which installed Gayle as the successor is unassailable, and there are no indications they are troubled by the possibility of a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Benson’s circle of advisers is vehement that the Saints’ strides don’t excuse the sins of the Pelicans, who remain several games out of a playoff spot this season and are facing the loss of their star.
Lauscha said a ramped-up search for the long-term replacement for Demps, the dismissed general manager, was imminent. Then, whether it’s interim GM Danny Ferry or someone else ending up in charge, the priority will be to trade the All-NBA star Davis in exchange for the best players available to begin rebuilding with an eye toward contention next year.
Loomis said Gayle Benson was deeply involved in shaping the organization’s response to pressure from Davis’ agent, the Los Angeles Lakers and some members of the national media to ship the superstar to Tinseltown last month in return for a package of players from a team that itself is several games out of a playoff spot.
The Pelicans kept Davis and will assess their options after Boston — comfortably in playoff contention at the moment — can enter the market for the star this offseason, when Celtics guard Kyrie Irving's contract is set to expire.
“Following (Tom Benson’s) philosophies … I think she decided the important thing here was we weren’t going to be dictated to. We’re going to do what’s best for us on our timeline, not anyone else’s,” Loomis said. “We care about players and their feelings, but first and foremost we’re going to do what’s best for the Pelicans.”
Nobody close to her was surprised that, during her first 12 months at the helm, Gayle Benson maintained the philanthropy many credited her for inspiring in her husband in his latter years.
In announcing her $3.5 million donation Friday, Second Harvest Food Bank said the gift was the largest in its 37-year history and would help update its Harahan-area headquarters.
A few weeks earlier, another New Orleans institution received the largest monetary gift in its history. Jesuit High School, founded in 1847, got money to refurbish its gym.
Anyone familiar with local Catholic school rivalries may have been puzzled by Benson’s donation to Jesuit. Tom Benson attended St. Aloysius, which later merged with Cor Jesu to become the Jesuit Blue Jays’ eternal rivals: the Crusaders of Brother Martin High School.
But Jesuit spokesman Jeremy Reuther, an alumnus who played much of his prep basketball career in a gym that will now be named after the Bensons, said the donation was a reminder of how Catholic education’s shared heritage is more powerful than athletic grudges.
Two of her and her husband’s closest allies — Lauscha and Greg Bensel, the Bensons’ longtime communications chief — spent their high school years at Jesuit.
“Their character for her was a reason that she decided this was an institution she wanted to support,” Reuther said.
Jesuit is only the latest Catholic institution that the devout Benson has supported with the fortune that her husband began amassing through car dealerships and banks in Texas and New Orleans.
“For her, it is a way of supporting important needs in the community and reflecting the heart of Christ,” a statement from Aymond, the archbishop, said in part. “Certainly, she misses (Tom) but she wants to keep his spirit within our community and beyond.”
In a statement, Gayle Benson concurred.
“As we remember my late husband Tom Benson on the one-year anniversary of his passing, what stands out as the most important part of his life, that even today remains as powerful as ever, was his ability to impact and change lives in a positive way,” she said. “That legacy he created lives on and is what keeps me motivated.”
She added: “One year later, as I reflect, the only pressure I face is living up to the wonderful standards that he has set.”
Gayle Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, will donate $5 million to Jesuit High School, the largest gift in the school's…