By Michael Adolphson
“They call it the Sport of Kings,” Evelyn Benoit said politely. “Even though I am a woman, I know the kings are paying attention.”
To call the native of Houma, Louisiana, the 'First Lady' of Louisiana thoroughbred racing–as many lovingly do– seems a tad inadequate. The principal of the powerful breeding and owning operation Brittlyn Stable sits subserviently at no head of state's side in the marsh of bayou horseracing. She is profoundly the potentate of Pelican State racing and the doyenne to breeding in the Deep South. In her fourth decade in the industry, Benoit emanates the enthusiasm of a first-time bettor cashing a $2 win ticket. When seen at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots on the weekends, she is a vibrant personality determined to improve the industry on multiple levels. Whether chatting with a railbird or an owner of a local professional sports team, it is evident that she passionately supports horseracing because doing so it is nothing short of dyed-in-the-wool of who she is.
“Racing really has been my life since I was in my 20s,” Benoit explained. “I started with two mares in my backyard and after 40 years you don't count the days or the horses, you just take it one day at a time, a step at a time and build on what you have. I breed and raise horses and that prepares you for anything. You have to be able to handle the ups and downs and be seasoned. Sometimes, though, you do have to step back and say 'look at what I have–is this real life?' because, outside of my family, racing has given me the most pleasure in my life and I'm so happy to do well.”
Most of the aforementioned kings took notice this past Saturday when Benoit's Forevamo (Uncle Mo) charged down the New Orleans oval's famously long stretch and nearly caught Gun Runner in the final strides of the GII Risen Star Stakes at odds of 40-1. The runner-up effort earned him 20 Kentucky Derby qualification points and showed marked improvement from his runner-up allowance effort a month prior.
“My husband and I were discussing about buying a new stallion because we have a lot of mares from Star Guitar's family that can't breed to him,” Benoit recollected. “We decided we should try to make our own, so I called (trainer) Al (Stall, Jr.) and said we wanted a 2-year-old colt, so he hooked us up with (bloodstock agent) David Ingordo at the Florida sale. We went over a list that we made shorter before zooming in on a few. Then we saw the Uncle Mo and because I really liked Uncle Mo and my husband Maurice's nickname is 'Mo' I decided I wanted that one and was determined to get him. We named him Forevamo because Maurice would sign his letters to me 'Love Forever, Mo'.”
Fashionably bred, Forevamo is conditioned by Stall and earned his lone victory when annexing last season's $200,000 Jean Lafitte Stakes at Delta Downs as a maiden. A Florida-bred half-brother to 2011's Eclipse champion female sprinter and Breeders' Cup winner Musical Romance (Concorde's Tune), the lightly raced bay colt cost $320,000 at OBS April 2015 and is one of a series of upgrades to a Brittlyn roster–along with private purchases of graded stakes-winning sprinter Clearly Now (Horse Greeley) and allowance winner Tough Customer (Giant's Causeway)–that is already flush with quality broodmares and popular young stallion Star Guitar (Quiet American), who stands for $4,000 at Clear Creek Stud and whose first crop races in 2016.
“A few minutes before post time we were 54-1, so I wasn't that nervous because of our odds, but Al kept telling me he was improving every day and his works were telling him he wanted to do more,” Benoit continued. “Coming down the stretch, my family was screaming and it was just such a thrill. It was almost as good as winning the race and I've never been so happy to be second. Al said he came back perfect and I'm excited to hopefully run in the Louisiana Derby. The horse has to take us there and Al and I won't put him in anything we don't feel like he's ready for. That being said, nothing seems to bother him. He is a very laid-back and kind horse.”
Benoit, who renovates classic homes and historical landmarks throughout the New Orleans area as a hobby, seems to take as much pride in refurbishing things she loves as developing them. One of her current projects is advancing the career of her 24-for-30 four-time Louisiana-bred Horse of the Year and leading state-bred Star Guitar.
“I cannot tell you how gorgeous Star Guitar's babies are,” she beamed. “He was a very sound horse and they're beautifully built like him. He was tough, sweet and talented horse and I know he will make a great stallion. He has bred about 60-70 per season and the thing about him is he could do it all–in the deepest mud, the hottest heat, down the longest stretch and in the bullring. Forevamo actually really reminds me of him so much.”
Like the governors' mansions she revamps, Benoit yearns to see racing return to its former glory. After having Star Guitar race for six seasons and now having stable star and 12-time stakes winner Sunbean (Brahms) return to the races on Feb. 27 in his 6-year-old bow after a year layoff, she is keenly aware of the impact a fan favorite has on racing on both macro and micro levels. Forevamo gaining moderate national attention this week in his sixth start and second sophomore effort put that keenly into perspective.
“I don't have anything else to prove and I have never said I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby or the Triple Crown,” she explained. “Everyone wants to win those, and of course it's in my mind, but I'd rather have the 24 wins with Star Guitar and racing until he was seven with all those fans asking when's his next race. It's a different kind of gratification. If (New Orleans Saints quarterback) Drew Brees played only one season and then left, it wouldn't build that fan base. The reason I put the money I make in racing back into racing is because live racing is the heart of it. If you want to keep the business going, you have to have those John Henrys and Star Guitars that pull people in. They have to have something to love.”
Just as she did when taking the reins of her family's business, Benoit Machine–a leader provider of supplies to the gas and oil industries–in 2007 after a tragic accident left her husband paralyzed and under 24-hour nursing care, Benoit is fearless in her ride toward excellence in the racing industry. In that same gait, she garners an acute focus on what matters most to her, no matter how many kings are taking heed now that she has a Derby prospect.
“I'm ready for whatever pressure comes,” Benoit concluded. “All I ever wanted to do was have a great time with my family and friends and I will never retire from racing because my heart is with Louisiana and I know we're making a difference.”