Lewis: For Evelyn Benoit, Champions Day Classic is only the start of big Fair Grounds dreams _lowres

Photo by Hodges Photography -- Sunbean, with Corey Lanerie aboard, captures the 24th running of the $150,000 Louisiana Chammpions Day Classic at the Fair Grounds on Saturday.

Sunbean became Evelyn Benoit’s second Louisiana-bred $1 million winner Saturday, joining her Star Guitar by winning the Louisiana Champions Day Classic at the Fair Grounds.

“This is the impossible dream,” Benoit said.

But it’s going to take many millions more for Benoit to achieve perhaps a truly impossible dream — buying and upgrading the Gentilly facility.

“I see weddings here, I see parties, I see Halloween celebrations,” Benoit said after Sunbean stuck a neck ahead at the finish to nip Watch My Smoke, who was subsequently disqualified. “I see a lot of great bands playing at something not as big as Jazzfest but maybe once a month.

“I see hotels built where people could sit out on the porches in the morning and watch the horses run. I see it all.”


Benoit, who with an unnamed partner made serious inquires about purchasing the Fair Grounds from Churchill Downs Inc. in September. But the reported asking price of $125 million was too much, especially since she sees putting at least $25 million of improvements to the track and its surroundings afterward.

CDI officials have had no comment on whether or not the track even is for sale, but rumors persist that things will heat up again after Jazzfest.

“What they’re wanting is a problem because we want to put a lot of money into it,” Benoit said. “We wouldn’t be buying it to keep it like it is; we want to improve it.

“We want to make it a destination spot so that when people say they’re coming to New Orleans they say, ‘Wow. Did you go see the Fair Grounds? Don’t miss it.’”

That’s an ambitious thought, especially during a time when racing around the country is struggling to keep its head above water in many places, including the Fair Grounds.

The track makes money for CDI, but only because of slots and video poker income.

And because of unrest among the horsemen that helped forced improvements to the track after the last meet — most notably fixing the turf system — CDI reportedly doesn’t want to have to deal with the continuing hassle anymore.

But even if Benoit and her partner — whom see would not identify except to say, “He’s very wealthy. Very wealthy” — were able to buy the track and the 11 off-track betting facilities it also owns, neighborhood group opposition would make items like hotels in on or near the Fair Grounds difficult to gain approval for.

And even though Louisiana Champions Day should seemingly be a big draw, the grandstand on Saturday looked as empty as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at the end of the Carolina game.

Folks just don’t come out to the track like they used to, and never may again.

That doesn’t deter Benoit though.

“I can’t complain about Churchill Downs,” she said. “A lot of people do, but when you’re running the kind of races I do, you’re lucky to have a place to race.”

Indeed, in a time when the number of Louisiana-breds is in decline, Benoit’s Brittlyn Stables now numbers more than 70.

And Benoit treats them much like her own five grown children, talking to staying up all night with a sick mare or tending to a colt that’s having problems.

And that’s not to mention caring for her husband, Maurice, who was crippled for life in an auto accident seven years ago is unable to attend the races.

That doesn’t keep Benoit from being a force of nature.

It seemed like half of her native Houma merited a spot in the winner’s circle with Sunbean. But there was no doubt about who was the lady in red responsible for it all.

“What she’s done, the money she’s put into this industry, the way she takes care of her horses — she has everyone’s respect,” said former NFL quarterback Jake Delhomme, who also is the past president of the Louisiana Breeders Association. “She’s very, very positive for our program.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt she could go out and do the same thing for the Fair Grounds. People like Evelyn are fantastic.”

That’s why Saturday’s Classic victory, her fifth in the last six years, was so meaningful for Benoit.

Sunbean, she likes to point out, is a true Louisiana-bred, bred and born at Clear Creek Stud in Folsom by Brahms, a then-resident of nearby Elite Thoroughbreds. That may be in St. Tammany Parish, but to Benoit, it makes Sunbean “100 percent Cajun.”

It was his 13th victory in 20 starts and seventh of 2014.

“And we’ve got big plans for him for next year,” Benoit said.

That goes for buying the Fair Grounds as well.

“I can’t say too much,” Benoit said. “But we’re discussing things with a lot of people.”

Stay tuned.