Thrilling uncertainty surrounds the purchase of a well-bred yearling.
How will the prospect develop physically and mentally? Will the runner be ready at age 2 or require greater patience? Will it prefer turf or dirt? Long or short? Can it compete at the highest levels? Can it accomplish anything memorable?
Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle, surely asked themselves those exciting questions soon after they established G M B Racing and acquired their first group of yearlings in 2014. Tom’s d’Etat, a $330,000 son of Smart Strike, was among the youngsters purchased at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale.
No one could have envisioned the journey he would take G M B Racing on, one that culminates in his appearance as a top contender in the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Keeneland Race Course.
“I’m just happy for the horse. He deserves to be this type of horse. We’ve felt that way all along,” said trainer Al Stall, Jr. “A lot of horses might have had this kind of untapped potential and not get to it. But for him to show up on this type of stage at this point in his career, I’m happy for him and the owners. My crew worked hard on this horse for a long, long time. It’s a feel-good story.”
There is much about the rise of the 7-year-old that feels very good indeed. He overcame an extraordinary amount of adversity, including a pair of ankle operations, to be at his best in the autumn of his career.
He did not break his maiden until his third start, on Aug. 5, 2016 at New York’s Saratoga Race Course. Rather than build on that win, he was unable to return to competition until March 20 of the following year, when he took an allowance optional claiming race at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He made three more starts that year, winning two, before he was sidelined until Nov. 4, 2018.
He finally made his stakes debut on Dec. 22, 2018, winning the Tenacious Stakes at Fair Grounds. With his ability to stay sound after that, he was at last able to tap into his abundant potential.
Tom’s d’Etat put together a strong 6-year-old campaign in 2019 that climaxed with victories in the Hagyard Fayette Stakes at Keeneland and the Clark Stakes presented by Norton Healthcare on Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs. The Clark brought G M B Racing a first Grade 1 victory.
Stall views the Tenacious as a turning point in what had been a largely exasperating career to that point. “He’s basically been going forward since then,” he said. “He’s been a straightforward, regular horse for over two years now. That continuity has got his cardio perfect and has his mind just right. I think that’s why we are where we are today.”
At a time when other horses are typically showing their age, Tom’s d’Etat looks to be at the top of his game. He opened the season by rallying to defeat Classic rival Improbable by three-quarters of a length in the April 11 Oaklawn Mile. He trounced By My Standards, another Classic starter, by 4 ¼ lengths in the June 27 Stephen Foster Stakes.
He was more a victim of circumstance than anything else when he finished third to Improbable and By My Standards in the Aug. 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. He was made to stand for an inordinate amount of time while Improbable, who tends to be fractious in the starting gate, acted up. While the delay did not at all bother Improbable, Tom’s d’Etat stumbled at the break and never quite recovered from his slow start for regular rider Joel Rosario.
Stall won the Classic when Blame stubbornly denied the great mare Zenyatta in 2010. He has been focused on a return to the season-culminating race since Tom’s d’Etat encountered his misfortune in the Whitney.
“We’re happy with the horse,” Stall said. “He’s had a reputation and a history of running extremely well fresh.”
Tom’s d’Etat showed his readiness with a pair of bullet works at Churchill Downs, covering six furlongs in 1:13.20 on Oct. 17 and in 1:12.80 seven days later. Stall was content when his horse drew post four in a Classic field of 10, knowing how well post five clicked for Blame.
“Absolutely no excuses whatsoever,” he said. “He runs inside, he can take dirt, he can rate off a fast pace. Nothing bothers him.”
Tom’s d’Etat has made the most of 19 career starts with 11 victories, two runner-up efforts and two third-place results for earnings of $1,702,272. Stall is pleased that Tom’s d’Etat will be retired to prestigious WinStar Farm.
“There won’t be emotion like, ‘Oh, we want the horse to stay around so we can make more money.’ None of that,” he said. “We’re thrilled to death that he’s got such a wonderful place to go and (WinStar) does a wonderful job getting mares for their stallions. They have a clientele that goes from here to forever.”
The Classic is sure to come with mixed emotions for Gayle Benson. Tom died in March 2018. He was 90.
Gayle has carried on the Benson name admirably. She responded generously to help meet the massive challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. She established the $1 million Gayle Benson Community Assistance Fund. As owner of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, she also set up an Arena Assistance Fund to help cover wages for arena and Pelicans employees.
Tom would have been so proud of that – and to know what Tom’s d’Etat has become.