Five years ago, owner Rick Porter suffered the most devastating heartbreak in Kentucky Derby history. Now, the proprietor of Fox Hill Farm is back with another major contender in Normandy Invasion, who could exorcise those memories and give Porter his first Derby victory.
In the 2008 Derby, Porter's filly Eight Belles ran a mighty race to finish second to the champion colt Big Brown. But as she galloped out beneath jockey Gabriel Saez, far past the wire and rounding the first turn, the joy in her effort suddenly turned to unthinkable tragedy.
The statuesque gray broke down catastrophically in both front ankles. With no hope of saving her, Eight Belles had to be euthanized right there on the track, the first death in 134 editions of the Run for the Roses.
It all happened so quickly that Porter, amid the immediate post-race enthusiasm, hadn't even seen her break down. He described the whiplash of emotion as the awful truth became clear to them.
"We were all excited, hugging each other -- my family was there -- and I just got my binoculars and was looking for her coming back, just to watch her come back to unsaddle," Porter recalled.
"I said to my son, 'Where is she? I can't find her.' And then an ambulance went by, and my wife said, 'There goes an ambulance.'
"And my son looked across, and he said, 'Well, there's a bunch of people over there, and they're putting a sheet up.'
"And I see Gabe standing there, and that's how we finally figured it out. Some people came and got us and we walked back to the barn.
"It was just a devastating afternoon."
A grief-stricken Porter considered giving up the sport that he had loved since his youth.
"I thought about it for a brief time, but then I said, I've got to a realize that this does happen once in a while, and things can happen to me just like it happens to other people," Porter said. "You're going to have to learn to live with that fear all the time.
"And, you know, it's something I still . in big races -- with Havre de Grace (his 2011 Horse of the Year) -- I kept my fingers crossed all the time. It's not something that weighs on my mind constantly now, but I have a lot of mementos of Eight Belles, and it's something I'll never forget."
A 72-year-old native of Wilmington, Delaware, Porter grew up attending the races with his family at nearby Delaware Park. He later ran the family business, a group of car dealerships. As it turned out, that would help to get him into Thoroughbred ownership. One of his general managers had horses with John Servis, brought Porter to meet the trainer, and the rest is history.
Although Porter started out with a couple of low-level horses in 1994, it didn't take him long to get to the Derby. His stable - which is named for a Delaware home that he bought -- sent out its first Derby starter just three years later. Shammy Davis, trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, was a longshot in the 1997 running. He performed to his odds when finishing 12th behind Silver Charm.
That Derby initiation was a learning experience for Porter.
"I really had just gotten into horse racing, and Nick Zito was training for me at the time and had most of my horses," Porter said. "If I had the knowledge then that I have now, I wouldn't have run him. In my opinion, he really didn't belong in the race."
Porter didn't want to compete in America's iconic race unless he had a serious contender, and he made good on that resolution. A few of his promising candidates were knocked off the trail by injury. But Porter would later make it to the Derby with major players in three consecutive years -- Hard Spun (2007) and Eight Belles (2008) were runners-up, while Friesan Fire disappointed as the lukewarm favorite in 2009. The Derby trio were all trained by Larry Jones.
Porter's first top prospect was a Servis trainee, Rockport Harbor, who burst onto the scene in late 2004. The gray son of Unbridled's Song won his first four starts, capped by a thoroughly game score in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
But it ended up being a Pyrrhic victory, for Rockport Harbor had been stepped on by a rival and sustained a bloody injury to his right hind hoof. It was a setback that would haunt him on the Derby trail, compromising his training timetable and contributing to his two losses in the spring.
"We had been struggling to get his foot straight," Porter said. "I really didn't have high hopes that we were going to get him ready. We took one last shot in the Lexington, and it was a very rainy day that day as I remember, and he didn't do very well (a distant sixth)."
Ruled out of the 2005 Derby, Rockport Harbor missed the rest of his three-year-old season. He raced only twice at four before re-aggravating his old injury, prompting his retirement to stud. Porter paid tribute to him by naming his stable's website after him, rockportharbor.com .
Hard Spun would be the one to bring Porter back to the Kentucky Derby, 10 years after his forgettable debut with Shammy Davis. The son of world-renowned sire Danzig sported a 5-for-6 record, including scores in the Lecomte and Lane's End (now the Spiral), upon his arrival at Churchill Downs.
The front runner in the 2007 Derby, Hard Spun began to kick away from the field on the far turn. As he opened up a three-length margin, Porter sensed that he was watching the winning move.
"I did think we had a shot at winning the race when I first saw him turning for home -- it looked like he was running away from them," Porter recalled. "And I didn't see Street Sense coming, from where I was sitting in the stands."
But champion Street Sense was coming, and when Porter saw him, he knew "trouble popped up its ugly head."
Down the stretch, Street Sense surged past Hard Spun. The Fox Hill Farm colt was relegated to a gallant runner-up, 5 3/4 lengths clear of future two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.
After watching the replay, Porter was left with a feeling of what might have been. He marveled that Street Sense, closing from 19th in a 20-horse field, didn't have a straw in his path, and winning rider Calvin Borel was able to launch his patented rail-hugging move.
"It was just hard to believe, a miracle, that all those horses were out on the three, four and five path, and Calvin Borel could have a straight run," Porter said. "I think he was 18th or 19th between the three-eighths and half-mile pole, and he just had a straight run up there, and he got us.
"I thought we were going to win the race.
"If you ran that race another 100 times, the chances of him not having to go around one horse, from that far back, it's just a miracle. And the funny part was, the rail was the hot spot right then. That's where the horses were running the best that day.
"That's how hard it is to win the Derby. You can lose it a thousand ways."
Porter returned the following year with Eight Belles, who had won four straight against fillies. Although she could have stayed in her own division for the Kentucky Oaks, the daughter of Unbridled's Song had been so dominant that she looked to be a match for the colts. Indeed, aside from the undefeated favorite Big Brown, the rest of the males didn't appear a compelling bunch.
That impression was confirmed in the Run for the Roses, as Big Brown won handsomely, and Eight Belles was easily best of the rest. Sadly, her tremendous performance -- emulating the feat of her old stablemate Hard Spun -- was eclipsed by her tragic breakdown after the race.
"They had so many people question me running her in the race," Porter said. "I really thought she belonged with all the numbers (speed figures showing her competitiveness against males), and she proved she did. It was just a fluke that it happened."
When Porter decided to remain involved in the game as an owner, he was soon rewarded with a pair of leading contenders for the 2009 Kentucky Derby, Old Fashioned and Friesan Fire.
Old Fashioned was at first the more exciting of the two. Yet another by Unbridled's Song, he soared to the top of some Derby lists with runaway victories in the Remsen and Southwest. But in the course of his runner-up effort in the Arkansas Derby, he sustained a career-ending injury.
"Old Fashioned was probably -- Larry (Jones) and I have agreed -- the best colt I've ever had," Porter said. "He was going to be the Derby favorite, particularly if he won the Arkansas Derby, but he had a slab fracture in his knee in that race, and he still ran second. It was a lot of disappointment with Old Fashioned."
But that same spring, Friesan Fire -- a colt campaigned in partnership with Vinery Stables -- emerged as a prime contender. The royally-bred son of A.P. Indy swept Fair Grounds' three-year-old series, culminating in a 7 1/4-length rout in the Louisiana Derby, and was sent off as the 7-2 favorite in the 2009 Derby.
Nothing went right from the start that day, as Friesan Fire was bumped, grabbed his quarter, and trudged home 18th behind the 50-1 shocker Mine That Bird. After Friesan Fire also ran poorly in the Preakness, Dr. Larry Bramlage diagnosed him with bone bruising, and he was sidelined.
Porter hasn't had a Derby runner in the interim, but the red-and-white Fox Hill Farm silks were still in the forefront of the racing world, principally through Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.
Shortly before Havre de Grace's retirement a year ago, Porter purchased a Tapit colt for $230,000 at the Keeneland April Sale of 2-year-olds in training. The bay made a good appearance, despite being a relatively late (May 2) foal, and was short-listed by Porter's eagle-eyed bloodstock advisor, Tom McGreevy.
That colt would be named Normandy Invasion, in honor of the Allies' massive amphibious assault that commenced on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and ultimately turned the tide in the European theater in World War II.
Porter described himself as "a great admirer of the whole Normandy process, the planning, the heroism.
"We went there for the 50th anniversary and spent quite a bit of time in Normandy. Just seeing everything there is to see in Normandy, it's an unbelievable experience."
Like all of Porter's new recruits, Normandy Invasion had to be assigned a trainer. Chad Brown, one of several horsemen in the picture who already had Fox Hill Farm horses, made no secret of his desire to get the colt.
"Chad happened to be at that April Keeneland Sale where we bought Normandy," Porter said. "He had looked at the horses that Tom McGreevy had picked out for me on the short list.
"After we bought him, Chad said, 'I really love that horse -- I'd like to train him.'"
Normandy Invasion first spent a little time with Ian Brennan at the Vinery Stable in Ocala, Florida, before joining Brown's barn at Saratoga. But his connections weren't ready to race him just yet, preferring to take the conservative approach with their young colt.
"Chad was high on him. Ian was high on him. We were really taking our time with him because he's a big horse, even though he's light, but we took our time with him. He showed a lot of talent," Porter said.
Normandy Invasion made his debut in September at Belmont, winding up fifth, but he trounced his maiden rivals next time out at Aqueduct in November.
"When he broke his maiden, at that point, Chad said, 'I think we really ought to think about running him in the Remsen.'
"And it surprised me a little bit," Porter admitted, "but then I looked at his Rag number (Ragozin speed figure), and he was progressing, and I'd won the Remsen a couple times with Old Fashioned and Rockport Harbor, and I figured, let's go for the three-bagger."
Normandy Invasion justified the step up in class with a monster performance, only to miss on a bob of the head to Overanalyze at the wire. Albeit in defeat, he stamped himself as a legitimate Derby hopeful.
"We might have been thinking secretly about the Derby, dreaming about it, but we really hadn't gotten that far until after the Remsen," Porter said. "And then we knew that we were going to put him on the Derby trail."
Connections mapped out a two-prep schedule for Normandy Invasion leading up to the Run for the Roses. But when he was only fifth after a poor start in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, he failed to earn any points toward the Derby.
Porter was not tempted to change plans. Instead, Porter held the view that the colt would either earn his way in or not and left everything up to his performance in the Wood Memorial. Normandy Invasion came through with a fast-finishing second to likely Derby favorite Verrazano, banking more than enough points to assure himself of a spot in Derby 139.
Since then, Fox Hill Farm fans have had plenty of reason to get their hopes up. Jockey Javier Castellano chose to stick with Normandy Invasion, thereby giving up the mount on Louisiana Derby hero Revolutionary. And the colt has been training sharply over the track at Churchill Downs.
Brown, a protege of the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, has been pleased with how his first-ever Derby starter is coming up to the race -- as is Derby veteran Porter.
"He's different than pretty much all my other runners in that he runs much further off the pace, even though he has a terrific turn of foot," Porter said. "I think he's coming into the race as good as any of the other horses.
"I think he sort of fits in the same way -- if I were to handicap the race -- as Hard Spun and Eight Belles fit in their races. And actually, Friesan Fire, if he had gone on and performed the way he had been performing. He was probably the biggest standout we had. That's why he went off the favorite.
"I feel very confident of the way he's training right now," Porter added. "I think we've got a decent chance. I think we're one of the top two, three, or four horses in the race, and you can't ask for more than that."
Indeed, because of Normandy Invasion's high profile, a couple of Normandy veterans heard about him, and contacted Fox Hill Farm about getting an opportunity to see the colt at Churchill Downs.
Porter avidly embraced the idea as a way to honor our heroes. Reaching out to find other veterans of the invasion, Porter hopes to bring them together with the colt whose name enshrines their selfless service - and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
If Normandy Invasion can storm the track, and turn the tide of Porter's Derby luck, thoughts will inevitably turn to his fallen comrade, Eight Belles. She is buried on the grounds at the Kentucky Derby Museum, and Porter always visits her grave whenever he's near Churchill Downs.
Maybe this time, he'll be able to leave a rose, courtesy of Normandy Invasion.