The Outside Rail

When Tom’s d’Etat crossed the finish line in the Stephen Foster last week, jockey Miguel Mena stood up in the irons and brought his finger to his lips in the universal signal to “Shhhh.” There were no fans in attendance at Churchill Downs, but Mena was speaking for his horse who silenced everybody with the Grade 2 stakes win.

“Miguel did it, but that’s this horse,” said Greg Bensel, racing manager for owner GMB Racing. “He says, ‘I don’t care who you are. It’s irrelevant to me. I will run your ass down. If you beat me, you’re going to have to work your ass off.’ He’s 7, still going, still doing it. He’s got a fight. He stares horses down. He’s a grown man.”

And people love him for it. After he won the Foster, I fired off a hasty one-beer tweet that went: 

Tom’s d’Etat is what horses are supposed to be – let them develop, give them time to figure themselves (and life) out, allow them to get over stuff and then you get this. Bad-ass 7-year-old racehorse.

The 200 characters bounced halfway around the internet and back, garnering 30,557 impressions, 1,348 engagements, 481 likes and 53 retweets. I’m not all that sure what those numbers mean either, other than – Tom’s d’Etat and I went a little bit viral on Twitter. I laughed, and thought of a sport that somehow manages to mess itself up in terms of public perception. Racing is hard on horses . . . the stars don’t last . . . the breed is weak . . . whips . . . Lasix . . . the FBI . . . cheaters . . . medication reform . . . you know the drill.

Maybe all people really want is a horse they can identify with, a horse like Tom’s d’Etat.

Bred by SF Bloodstock, the bay colt went to Keeneland September in 2014 where he crossed paths with trainer Al Stall and friends Frank and Daphne Wooten. Along with trainers Dallas Stewart and Tom Amoss, they’d been given a budget ($500,000 each roughly) from GMB to buy yearlings. The figure was a “salary cap” and the trainers were free to purchase one horse or two, three, five, whatever. The sale was a touchdown for GMB, the initial foray into racing by New Orleans Saints owners Tom and Gayle Benson. Stewart bought Tom’s Ready for $145,000. Amoss landed Mo Tom for $150,000. Stall reached to get Tom’s d’Etat for $330,000. Two years later, Tom’s Ready and Mo Tom ran in the Kentucky Derby. Tom’s d’Etat gave his stablemates a head start. 

“He was slow developing,” said Bensel. “We broke him and got him to Al later than the other ones, but we knew what we were buying. He was going to need some time and might be coming along a little bit later.”

The day before Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready ran in the Derby, Tom’s d’Etat made his debut and finished 11th. He graduated two starts later at Saratoga, and spent the next seven months away from the races. He returned in March 2017 and won three of four before going back to the sidelines for 15-plus months. Returning in November 2018, he won two in a row (including a small stakes) and was a dull ninth in the Pegasus World Cup to start 2019. The rest of the year went considerably better – second in the Alysheba, third in the Foster, a win in Saratoga’s Alydar, fourth in the Woodward, then wins in Keeneland’s Fayette and the Grade 1 Clark at Churchill. Tom’s d’Etat picked right up in 2020, winning the Oaklawn Mile before the Foster.

As the old-timers say, all those layoffs mean Tom’s d’Etat had “more problems than a math book.” Bensel remembered some recovery time at Benson Farm (the former Greenwood Lodge) in Paris, Ky., early on in the process.

“There’s a barn there we call the Creek Barn, it’s way down by the creek and you’ve got to make your way to go there because it’s not on the way anywhere,” said Bensel. “We’d go visit the farm for four or five days and never go to the Creek Barn. He was down there like an afterthought. He just lived down there, lived in his pasture, did his thing, got over some of that stuff. 

“But, man when he came out of there, it was something.”

Tom Benson died in March 2018, during one of Tom’s d’Etat’s lengthy breaks from racing but Gayle has more than carried on the program. GMB breeds, buys, sells, races and raises Thoroughbreds. At 7, Tom’s d’Etat is older than some in-demand stallions out there and he should get his chance soon enough – especially if the son of Smart Strike keeps piling up graded stakes wins.

“We’ve talked to a number of people, but – and this is not a threat – he owes us nothing,” said Bensel. “He’s brought us great joy, he’s been fun to watch and he can have his own damn pasture and his own barn at Benson Farm forever. If this horse just goes to Benson farm and is fat and happy the rest of his life we’re fine with that. We feel this is a Kentucky stallion, but we’ll see. We’re not in this to get every dime out of the horse. Is this the right spot for the horse? That’s all we’re thinking about.”

And all anybody wants.

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This is from the July 4 edition of The 2020 Special. Click to read it all.