It's difficult to think of a time in the last decade-plus when Rick Porter didn't have a big horse going in a marquee race. It's hard to believe he overcame years of frustration in the horse business when nothing was going his way. He poured millions into buying yearlings at auction but mostly came up dry.
Then along came Jostle to win the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes (both gr. I) in 2000, opening up the floodgates for the mostly-retired automobile dealership owner. The Delaware native has been hitting home runs ever since, and has twice nearly taken down the biggest prize in American racing, finishing second in the 2007 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands (gr. I) with Hard Spun and again the following year with Eight Belles, whose tragic breakdown after the wire shocked the nation. Porter recovered to take home the Horse of the Year trophy with Havre de Grace in 2011, the third straight female to earn that honor after Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.
Porter is back in the Run for the Roses with the late-charging Normandy Invasion, for whom Porter, who races under the name Fox Hill Farms, surrendered $230,000 at last year's Keeneland April sale of 2-year-olds. The son of Tapit hit the bright lights with an astounding run in last November’s Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct Racetrack, flying from nine lengths off the pace to miss by a nose at nine furlongs.
Normandy Invasion, conditioned by Chad Brown, put on a repeat performance in April at Aqueduct, again coming from off the pace to pass Vyjack close home only to miss by three-quarters of a length to Verrazano in the Wood Memorial (gr. I). Normandy Invasion has become the exception to the norm for Porter.
"I haven't had a lot of success buying 2-year-olds," he admitted. "Joyful Victory was the first good one. This colt had some sesamoid issues that kept his price down. We took x-rays and made sure it wasn't something more serious, and I just had a feeling we should take a shot with this horse. We liked him that much, and too many times I’ve let veterinarians talk me off a horse that turned out to be a good runner."
Porter, an army veteran who once owned as many as a dozen car dealerships, has brought friends in for a minor piece of Normandy Invasion. So while University of Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino will make headlines as part owner of Derby contender Goldencents, Porter has his own hoops connection. Billy Cunningham, a star player and NBA championship coach with the Philadelphia 76ers, owns a slice of Normandy Invasion. The two are close friends who belong to the same country club. So the Derby will be a real battle of the coaches.
Normandy Invasion might be one of the more talented horses in the field, but with 20 runners in the race, he is more likely to be compromised by traffic issues from the rear of the pack. To that end, veteran rider Javier Castellano will be in charge of steering the colt under the Twin Spires.
"He didn't have a perfect trip in the Wood," Porter noted. "With his running style you need a lot of luck and for the jock to push the right buttons at the right time. If we get a reasonable post and decent position going into the first turn, and then some good old-fashioned racing luck, we've got a decent shot. A lot of these horses won't get a mile and a quarter. We will."
Porter keeps Eight Belles in his thoughts and keeps mementos and photos of her close at hand.
"I still think about her; that's something that never gets out of your mind, but at the same time it doesn't weigh on my mind anymore. You always hope nothing like that happens again."
Porter now divides his horses up among Brown, Larry Jones, and John Servis, who trained for Porter back in the '90s around the Mid-Atlantic tracks. He thinks that perhaps the principals involved with Normandy Invasion are ready to break through.
"Neither the owner, trainer, or jockey have won the Derby," he said. "With some racing luck, it could be our year."