Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.
In the latest installment, he speaks to Rick Porter, a cancer survivor who has made a significant mark on the sport since he purchased his first horse in 1994. In the name of Fox Hill Farms, he campaigned 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, the brilliant filly Songbird, 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun, and the star-crossed filly Eight Belles, also second in the 2008 Derby.
Porter unveiled another Derby prospect after Omaha Beach edged last year’s champion 2-year-old male Game Winner in the second division of the Rebel Stakes on March 16 at Oaklawn Park. The War Front colt made his first three starts on turf for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, taking third and running second twice. He broke his maiden on dirt in his fifth career start, drawing off by nine lengths in a seven-furlong contest at Santa Anita on Feb. 2. The Rebel marked his sixth start.
PEDULLA: Omaha Beach is the latest horse you named that refers to World War II. Why is that so important to you?
PORTER: I’m as patriotic as you can get. I’m just so proud of these guys that went over there. Can you imagine being in combat? I just can’t imagine.
PEDULLA: It seems you go out of your way to remind fans of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in behalf of this country.
PORTER: I do because I would like to see the younger generation, these millennials, know what these guys did, put their lives down in World War I and World War II.
PEDULLA: Since Omaha Beach is a son of War Front, did you assume you had a turf horse?
PORTER: Yes, Richard Mandella thought so. But he said he’s training good on the dirt. Let’s run him on the turf a couple of times and see what happens and then we can try him on dirt. He can run on the turf, he can run in the slop, and he can run on fast dirt. He ran good races every time.
PEDULLA: When Omaha Beach took five starts to break his maiden, were you losing any confidence?
PORTER: No. His numbers were great, he was running great, he was still learning. He didn’t want to go past horses and Dick says, ‘I’m going to get this straightened out.’ Dick was telling me, ‘He’s doing better and better. Don’t lose confidence in him. He’s got an awful lot of talent. He’s just developing slow.’ He was right again.
PEDULLA: What led you to run in the Rebel?
PORTER: We said it’s time to find out what’s going on here. We agreed that the Rebel was a good place to go, and the rest is history.
PEDULLA: Did you welcome Oaklawn’s decision to split the Rebel to accommodate horses from California?
PORTER: That was the only way we were going to get in. I thought it was very good of them.
PEDULLA: Did you have a sense before Saturday that Omaha Beach could win the race?
PORTER: More importantly, I thought we had a horse that would show us he could run with that company and that, if all things went really good, we could win the race. But even if we just ran well, I was going to be satisfied.
PEDULLA: You had to feel somewhat good about your chances to convince Mike Smith to come in from California to ride the horse.
PORTER: Mike and I go way back 20 some years to Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park. Mike and I have been friends. We talk quite a bit. Matter of fact, he called me from the airport as he was leaving and I talked to him before the race. We talk all the time.
PEDULLA: Did you think Mike helped make a difference on Saturday?
PORTER: I really do. I just think Mike knows how to do things right. He had a lot of confidence in the horse.
PEDULLA: What do you think of the training job Mandella has done with this horse?
PORTER: What do you think about Mandella with all horses? He’s unbelievable. He’s a fine gentleman, a great trainer. He’s got more experience than I imagine anybody could have. He makes all the right decisions.
PEDULLA: What might be next for Omaha Beach?
PORTER: We have three choices. We could train him up to the Derby, we could run him in the Santa Anita Derby [on April 6] or we could run him in the Arkansas Derby [on April 13]. There are only seven weeks, so you are either going to take the four now or take the four before the [Kentucky] Derby. I sort of like four now and three before the Derby because there are a lot of horses that have won the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby.
PEDULLA: Can he handle the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby?
PORTER: He’s certainly bred to. Dick thinks he can. Probably the farther the race and the more speed in the race, he will take back because he can take back. I just go by Mike and Mandella and they both tell me, ‘Don’t worry about the distance. He’ll go as far as you want him to go.’
PEDULLA: What would it mean to win the Derby?
PORTER: It would be fantastic. I’m not obsessed with the Derby like a lot of people are but, sure, I’d like to win it. We’ve come close a couple of times. It would be a feather in your cap and in Fox Hill Farms’ legacy.