November 28, 2021

Champions Songbird, Havre de Grace top list of Porter’s best

Songbird was a brilliant two-time champion for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms © BENOIT PHOTO

Fox Hill Farms’ Rick Porter, an ardent supporter of Thoroughbred aftercare as well as veterans of the U.S. military, sadly passed away Sunday. The 80-year-old native of Wilmington, Delaware, had fought cancer for many years.

The date of his passing, poignantly, marked the 77th anniversary of “D-Day.” Porter had commemorated the Allies’ amphibious landings, the turning point of the European theater in World War II, by naming horses Normandy Invasion and Omaha Beach.

As a tribute, we remember the outstanding runners campaigned in Porter’s distinctive red and white silks.

Horse of the Year Havre de Grace

Havre de Grace improved from a solid three-year-old season in 2010 to reign as the 2011 Horse of the Year and champion older female. The Larry Jones trainee clinched her Eclipse Awards by defeating males in the Woodward S. (G1), one of a trio of Grade 1s including the Apple Blossom H. (G1) and Beldame S. (G1) over Hall of Famer Royal Delta. Yet her old rivalry with Blind Luck carried over, for they traded decisions at four. Havre de Grace beat her archrival in the Azeri S. (G3) at Oaklawn, but Blind Luck nipped her in that summer’s Delaware H. (G2) – her lone loss in distaff company in 2011.

Havre de Grace, from the lone crop of ill-fated Horse of the Year Saint Liam, sold for $10 million to Whisper Hill Farm as a broodmare prospect at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November Sale.

Two-time champion Songbird

Nearly flawless with a 13-for-15 mark, and a couple of photo-finish losses, Songbird was a brilliant champion at both two and three in 2015 and 2016. The Jerry Hollendorfer pupil streaked through her first 11 starts by daylight, a skein highlighted by the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), Alabama S. (G1), and Cotillion S. (G1).

The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro lost her perfect record by a pixel when Beholder, likely a future Hall of Famer, denied her in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1). Songbird added the 2017 Ogden Phipps S. (G1) and Delaware H. (G1) before being caught on the line by Forever Unbridled in the Personal Ensign (G1), her career finale. Also purchased for $9.5 million by Whisper Hill, Songbird began her broodmare career by visiting fellow champion Arrogate.

Omaha Beach

A son of War Front whose name reflected Porter’s longtime interest in World War II, Omaha Beach might have been a champion, if not for an ill-timed setback. His victory in the 2019 Arkansas Derby (G1) propelled him into favoritism for the Kentucky Derby (G1), but he had to scratch with an entrapped epiglottis. Brought back to peak form by Richard Mandella, Omaha Beach returned to take the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1). After an upset loss in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), he was sublime in the Malibu S. (G1) in what turned out to be his last start. Plans for the 2020 Pegasus World Cup (G1) were scrapped by a foot bruise, and he retired to stud leaving the pang of what-might-have-been.

Hard Spun

Another versatile campaigner with high speed, Hard Spun carried it a long way in the 2007 Kentucky Derby before yielding to champion Street Sense. Trained by Jones, the son of Danzig was a warrior throughout the Triple Crown with a third in the Preakness S. (G1) and a fourth in the Belmont S. (G1). Hard Spun scored his signature win later that summer in the seven-furlong King’s Bishop (G1), but he also won over as far as 1 1/8 miles. He concluded his career with a second to Hall of Famer Curlin in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), and now ranks as a successful Darley sire.

Eight Belles

Porter finished second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby as well, but in tragic circumstances, as his star filly Eight Belles was fatally injured. One of Fox Hill’s major winners by Unbridled’s Song, along with Remsen S. (G2) victors Rockport Harbor (2004) and Old Fashioned (below), Eight Belles crowned a four-race winning streak in the Fantasy S. (G2). Porter would go on to win the Fantasy again in 2011 with Joyful Victory, eventually the Santa Margarita (G1) heroine in 2013.

Round Pond

Starting out with trainer John Servis, Round Pond came to the fore with victories in the 2005 Fantasy and Acorn S. (G1), but was sidelined by injury in the second half of the season. The daughter of Awesome Again returned triumphant at Oaklawn early in 2006, and earned her career-defining laurel in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff for Michael Matz.

Old Fashioned

Yet another prominent runner in the Jones barn, Old Fashioned stamped himself as a leading hopeful for the 2009 Derby when going unbeaten as a juvenile. The striking gray conquered the 2008 Remsen by 7 1/4 lengths, under wraps, and opened his sophomore season with another victory in the Southwest S. (G3). Unfortunately, Old Fashioned was second in the next two preps at Oaklawn, and he exited the Arkansas Derby with a career-ending injury.

Friesan Fire

Porter made it to that 2009 Derby after all with the post-time favorite, Friesan Fire. Co-owned by Vinery Stable, the Jones trainee swept the series for three-year-olds at Fair Grounds– the Lecomte (G3), Risen Star (G2), and Louisiana Derby (G2). But Friesan Fire had a rough passage in the Churchill slop and wound up 18th. Porter tried the Derby one last time, finishing fourth with Normandy Invasion (2013). His former colorbearer, Battle of Midway, would place third in the 2017 Derby, and win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, for new connections.

Kodiak Kowboy

The Fox Hill/Vinery partnership also campaigned Kodiak Kowboy, Canada’s champion juvenile of 2007 who earned an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter in 2009. His Grade 1 coups came in the Carter H. (G1), Vosburgh S. (G1), and Cigar Mile H. (G1).

Jostle

Porter’s first headliner, Jostle, garnered the 1999 Demoiselle (G2) and developed into a top sophomore of 2000. The Servis filly landed the Black-Eyed Susan (G2) and later made a hat trick of the Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, and Cotillion H. (G2).

South American connection

Most recently, Fox Hill had success with Brazilian imports Jolie Olimpica and Royal Ship, who just missed in the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1). Royal Ship is campaigned with Siena Farm, the same partnership as fellow Brazilian Bal a Bali, who later had success for new owner Calumet Farm.

Breeders’ Cup statement

As an indication of Porter’s stature in the racing world, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. honored him with the following statement:

“Rick Porter was a great sportsman and humanitarian who enjoyed remarkable success as an owner and stable manager in Thoroughbred racing. Under the banner of Fox Hill Farms, Mr. Porter campaigned many outstanding racehorses and Eclipse Awards winners, among them Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, Breeders’ Cup Champions Songbird and Round Pond, and graded stakes-winners Hard Spun and Omaha Beach.

“Equally important was Mr. Porter’s work for vital causes. Mr. Porter founded the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization, a program committed to finding safe homes for racehorses following their careers.

“Mr. Porter was also extremely devoted to honoring the great sacrifice exhibited by military veterans. He provided generous support to the Home For Our Troops program, and prior to 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park, he invited injured veterans to visit his 3-year-old Omaha Beach. We extend our deepest sympathies to his loved ones and to the entire Fox Hill Farms team.”