Prominent Thoroughbred owner Rick Porter brings to an emotionally wrenching sport a perspective that can only come through a brush with death.
Porter began to confront the end of his life in early 2017 when he told Tom McGreevy, his bloodstock agent, that he was free to work for someone else. Porter was gravely ill. Doctors had essentially run out of answers as he battled cancer for more than two years.
There was one last avenue of hope, an experimental clinical trial at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Fellow owner B. Wayne Hughes helped arrange for Porter to participate in that trial – and it worked.
That perspective almost surely has helped Porter, 79, through a wild season with Omaha Beach. The son of War Front responded to a move from turf to dirt by sweeping a division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby to establish himself as the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
It seemed that Porter and Richard Mandella, his Hall of Fame trainer, were on the verge of completing their Derby quest after decades of trying. Then came the bad news. Omaha Beach had an entrapped epiglottis that would require surgery. He would not be able to display his brilliance on the first Saturday in May.
“Everybody was really disappointed. I had almost my whole family coming for it, grandkids and everything,” Porter said. “It was a bummer.”
It was a bummer, yes, but Porter understood it was not the end of the world. Omaha Beach would heal. He would run again in the name of Porter’s Fox Hill Farm. Life would go on.
The colt recuperated at WinStar Farm and, after being set back by a virus, finally returned to the races on Oct. 5 in the six-furlong Santa Anita Sprint Championship. He displayed a turn of foot that only a precious few horses possess and ran down talented Shancelot in an auspicious prep for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
Suddenly, everything seems to be going Omaha Beach’s way again. His Oct. 23 drill – five furlongs in a crackling 59.60 seconds, fastest of 34 workers at the distance – suggests he and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will be nearly impossible to stop in the $1 million Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.
Porter said of a lost Derby opportunity he can never get back, “We were disappointed, but you’ve got to take it in stride and just hope he comes out of the surgery well. He healed slowly, but we’re sitting on go now. I think we’ve got the best 3-year-old in the country.”
Porter knows elite horses when he sees them. His Songbird won 13 races, nine of them Grade 1s, and earned almost $4.7 million in purses from 2015-2017. She sold as a broodmare for a near-record $9.5 million. Porter’s Havre de Grace emerged as Horse of the Year in 2011.
Porter had hoped to showcase Omaha Beach on the grandest stage of all, the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic, at a mile and a quarter. Circumstances dictated otherwise.
“I think we would be in the Classic, but we lost so much time. I think it’s just too much,” Porter said. “Dick and I agreed it’s too much to ask him to go after all the time off.”
Omaha Beach drew post five in a field of 12 and was installed as the 8-5 favorite. His rivals include Improbable, who wound up as the Kentucky Derby favorite and ran a disappointing fifth (placed fourth), as well as Coal Front, who showed what he could do on his best day when he won the Godolphin Mile in Dubai early this season.
Mandella was pleased after the draw.
“I couldn’t have drawn a better one. He’s right in the middle there,” he said. “Everything should go well, but we know we have to have a little bit of luck to go along with that post position.”
In many respects, the saga of Omaha Beach has turned into a feel-good story again. Porter served for more than two years in the Army starting in 1959 and is keenly aware of the sacrifices so many military men and women have made in behalf of the United States.
Sentient Jet, a private jet company, has partnered with Omaha Beach’s connections to increase awareness of Homes for our Troops. The organization builds and donates homes designed to meet the daily needs of veterans who have been severely injured since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Sentient Jet will host troops at the Breeders’ Cup and whenever Omaha Beach races again. He is expected to have one race in California in late December to prep for the Pegasus World Cup Invitational next Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park.
That would mark Omaha Beach’s career finale before he is sent to Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky., to embark on his new career as a stallion. Porter was delighted when Spendthrift made a significant bid to acquire breeding rights to the colt.
Spendthrift is owned by Hughes, whose intercession helped save Porter’s life.