April 14, 2024

A Gentleman of Racing: Rick Porter

Rick Porter at the Eclipse Awards
Rick Porter at the Eclipse Awards (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

by Jennifer Kelly

Her name was Dronetta. Sired by graded stakes winner Flying Pidgeon, this gray mare did most of her running at Monmouth or Philadelphia Park with a couple of stops in Florida, her birthplace. She had three wins in three seasons, all in claiming races, doing her dam Princess Drone one better by actually winning, even if they were just claiming races. Her most significant came at Garden Stakes Park on April 23, 1994. Winning by a half-length under jockey Tony Black, Dronetta became Rick Porter’s first winner, and, with that, he was hooked.

A quarter-century after Dronetta, racing mourns the passing of the man at the heart of Fox Hill Farms, a gentleman who leaves behind a legacy of champions like Havre de Grace, Songbird, and Omaha Beach, as well as a devotion to the welfare of the horse and an affinity for the causes of those who served our country. His red and white silks have become iconic to a generation of fans who followed his champions, but truly Rick Porter, who passed away June 7, 2021 was not just an owner of great racehorses. He was also a fan.

Songbird running in the Alabama Stakes with Fox Hill Farm silks. (Photo by Horsephotos.com)
Songbird running in the Alabama Stakes with Fox Hill Farm silks. (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

He Started Young

Delaware Park is a locus of mid-Atlantic racing history. Designed by William duPont, who helped build his family’s Montpelier estate into a yearly destination for both flat and jump enthusiasts, the track has seen eight decades of racing, introducing many a young person to the sport of kings. In the late 1940s, a young Richard Porter accompanied his parents to the track, the family sitting at a table out in the paddock while the eight-year-old future owner watched the horses and selected his $2 show bets.

As a young adult, after a two-year stint in the Army, Porter returned home to work in his family’s Chevrolet dealership. Twelve-hour days did not leave time for much else, but somehow the future owner would find time to visit the now-defunct Brandywine Raceway to wager on the trotters. Growing that Chevrolet dealership into the Porter Automotive Group and raising a family meant that trips to the racetrack were few and far between, but, years later, as his time freed up and the need for a hobby became clear, a trip to the races reignited Porter’s passion for the sport. And led him to Dronetta and a relationship with trainer John Servis.

From there, Dronetta led to the creation of Fox Hill Farms, named for one of the houses that Rick and wife Betsy owned, and horses like Jostle, Round Pond, Hard Spun, and Zonk. With each successive season, Porter became a regular in the sport’s biggest winner’s circles, bringing home Breeders’ Cup and Eclipse trophies while also engaging with the fans who loved his horses as much as he did.

He Valued Transparency

Porter was a new kind of owner, truthful with the press and thus with the fans. He would share his horses’ veterinarian reports and was open about the decisions that went into each horse’s care. When Eight Belles tragically broke down in the moments after the 2008 Kentucky Derby, Porter and trainer Larry Jones were upfront and public about their grief as well as their devotion to the horses in their care. “His horses came first. He was in it as a business, but always the horse came first, no matter the cost,” Jones remembered about his friend and long-time client.

Songbird with Rick Porter
Owner Rick Porter leads Songbird and jockey Mike Smith into the Delaware Park winner’s circle after capturing the Delaware Handicap on July 15, 2017 Hoofprints, Inc.

Throughout his years in racing, even after the tragedy that very nearly prompted him to quit the game altogether, Porter remained steadfastly honest about the care and welfare of his horses. “As soon as I would tell Rick something about his horse, it would be up on his website. That was the way he wanted to be.” Jones remembered. When champion filly Songbird was suddenly retired, Porter shared the process that went into that decision, his words leaving no doubt about both his devotion to the welfare of his horses but also to the people that crowded the rail to cheer for her.  

His time in the Army and a trip to Normandy Beach would leave Porter with a devotion to veterans; such impressions would lead him to name horses like Omaha Beach and Normandy Invasion after that historic moment. When Normandy Invasion ran in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, the owner brought four World War II veterans to Louisville to be a part of the moment. Porter also brought out veterans to meet Omaha Beach on the Santa Anita backside before the 2019 Breeders’ Cup. The master of Fox Hill Farms focused on the health of his horses and his heroes, and then took up the mantle of aftercare in 2018 as well.

With the founding of the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization, Rick Porter and Victoria Keith joined the effort to end the practice of selling Thoroughbreds for slaughter in the United States. Porter’s passion for the Thoroughbred had come full circle: from fan to owner to caretaker. From veterans of war to veterans of the racetrack, Rick Porter leaves behind the legacy of love for those who spend their lives giving of themselves and deserve that same level of care in return.

Owner Rick Porter walks Havre de Grace into the winner's circle (Photo by Horsephotos.com)
Owner Rick Porter walks Havre de Grace into the winner’s circle (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

His Memory Lives On

From his earliest chances to place show bets as a young boy in the 1940s to a gentleman owner racing some of the best horses of the last quarter century, Rick Porter leaves the sport and its fans with a legacy of great performances on the track and great care for the horses off the track. Through tragedy, Fox Hill Farms persevered, committed to giving back to its community and improving the sport through both outreach and openness. At the heart of all of this was a man who never forgot the joy of a day at the racetrack and wanted to give a little bit of that same delight back to those who came after him. Thank you, Mr. Porter. Racing appreciates all that you gave us.