The sight of prominent owner Rick Porter joyfully purchasing 10 yearlings at Keeneland’s September sale said everything about his tough-as-nails makeup. He could have been driven from racing years ago. He could have succumbed to an aggressive cancer before it was declared to be in full remission this summer.
Porter’s resilience was among the attributes that led the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters to honor him with the Mr. Fitz Award for typifying the spirit of racing. He will be saluted when the organization holds its 57th annual dinner on Thursday night, Nov. 2, as part of the festivities surrounding the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
The award is named after James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who trained the winners of 13 Triple Crown races and two Triple Crown champions, Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935), in a legendary career that stretched from 1894-1963.
Fitzsimmons sure had staying power. So does Porter.
“He’s become very good for the sport,” said Larry Jones, one of Porter’s trainers. “Trying to do right for the horse is so important.”
Porter bought his first horse in 1994. He gradually rose to national prominence with a series of top runners that started with Jostle, a Grade 1-winning filly, in 2000. The list went on to include Round Pond (winner of the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Distaff), Hard Spun (runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2007), Eight Belles (Kentucky Derby runner-up in 2008), Kodiak Kowboy (2009’s champion male sprinter), Havre de Grace (Horse of the Year in 2011) and, most recently, Songbird, a two-time Eclipse Award winner.
Porter yearned to have the brilliant filly Songbird compete in this year’s Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, a race she barely lost to Beholder in a spectacular stretch duel last November. He put that desire aside after Songbird did not appear to be herself when she ran second to Forever Unbridled in the Aug. 26 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. When a thorough veterinary examination revealed a number of issues, Porter never hesitated. He did the right thing. He retired Songbird.
Since Porter is not involved in breeding, Songbird will be offered at Fasig-Tipton’s November sale. “May she soar to new heights in her future journey,” Porter wrote on his Facebook page when he announced her retirement on Aug. 31.
Porter is driven to do the right thing. “Rick runs his business and takes care of his horses in a 100 percent ethical manner,” said Victoria Keith, his assistant for the last 13 years.
Sometimes doing the right thing is not thought to be enough. Porter and Jones received tremendous backlash when the filly Eight Belles broke down at the end of a gallant runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby.
“We were getting so much negativity,” Jones said. “We were having to deal with the loss ourselves. This was personal for us. Eight Belles was part of our family.”
Porter leaned on Betsy, his wife, for emotional support and wondered how he could move forward. Eventually, he came to terms with an accident for which seemingly no one was to blame.
“I talked to my wife about a month after it happened,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘Betsy, I’m not going to let this force me from the game. You’ve got to accept when things go horribly wrong.’ “
Porter remembered all of the good things that drew him to ownership in the beginning. “I enjoy going and watching and getting into the winner’s circle,” he said. “I have a passion for it.”
Racing helped to sustain him when he first battled large B-cell lymphoma in the spring of 2016. Thoughts of Songbird and how to best plan her schedule helped him deal with chemotherapy and its inevitable side effects, not to mention the uncertainty surrounding his grave illness.
Chemotherapy worked for a time – and then it did not. Doctors had just about run out of answers. The last hope was a clinical trial at Massachusetts General Hospital last June. The first scan after that innovative treatment indicated a partial remission. Porter will never forget the words he heard one month after the trial.
“I am happy to tell you that you are in full remission,” his doctor informed him. “There is no sign of any cancer cells.”
Porter is swept up in the spirit of racing again. He knows nothing would be so medicinal as having promising 2-year-olds in the barn.