Rick Porter, successful thoroughbred owner, dies at 80

Rick Porter, a successful owner who campaigned such top thoroughbreds as 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and ill-fated Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles, has died. He was 80.

He died Sunday at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware, after fighting cancer in various forms for over 20 years, according to Fox Hill Farm executive assistant Victoria Keith.

“He fought the hard fight,” friend and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith told The Associated Press on Monday. “He was down and out so many times, and he just kept coming back. He was a strong man.”

Porter’s Fox Hill Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, had career purse earnings of over $32 million, according to Equibase.

In five tries, he came closest to winning the Kentucky Derby in 2007, when Hard Spun finished second, and again in 2008, when filly Eight Belles finished second against all-male competition.

She broke down galloping out beyond the finish line at Churchill Downs. A horrified crowd watched as Eight Belles sustained compound fractures to both front ankles and was euthanized on the track. She was buried in the garden of the Kentucky Derby Museum at the track.

Porter and Larry Jones, who trained Eight Belles, were harshly criticized by animal rights activists at the time, which Smith said was unfair.

“They loved horses more than anybody,” he said.

Hard Spun finished third in the 2007 Preakness and was runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year.

Porter made his mark with other horses in Breeders’ Cup competition. Songbird won the Juvenile Fillies in 2015 and was second in the Distaff the following year. Round Pond won the Distaff in 2006.

Omaha Beach finished second in the BC Dirt Mile in 2019, the same year the colt was the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He had to drop out four days before the race because of an entrapped epiglottis, which required minor surgery. Richard Mandella, the colt’s trainer, recalled informing Porter.

“Nobody could have taken the news better than Mr. Porter did,” Mandella told AP. “It was always, ‘Do the right thing.’”

Porter, who was from Wilmington, Delaware, bought his first horse in 1994. It wasn’t long before he found the winner’s circle on a regular basis.

Songbird earned Eclipse Awards as champion 2-year-old filly in 2015 and champion 3-year-old filly the following year. She won 13 of 15 career races and had earnings of $4.6 million. Smith was her regular rider. His friendship with Porter went back to 2000, when Smith rode filly Jostle to victory in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. They spoke by phone every couple weeks.

“He was someone I looked up to that I could talk to about anything in life,” the jockey said. “We’d talk about horses for about five minutes and the other 15 minutes would be about life and the world.”

Mandella said he and Porter became good friends through their phone conversations more than any time they spent together.

“It would just be a joyous time,” the trainer recalled. “He was one of the most patriotic people I ever met. It was just such a pleasure to be involved with him.”

Mandella and Smith said Porter never burdened others with his ongoing health issues.

“I’d talk about it and he’d hush me up and go on to another subject,” Smith recalled. “I’m greatly going to miss him.”

Among Porter’s other top horses was Friesan Fire, who won the 2009 Louisiana Derby and went on to finish 18th in the Kentucky Derby, and Kodiak Kowboy, voted champion sprinter of 2009.

Porter had nearly 40 horses in training at his death, including a handful with Mandella in Southern California.

He is survived by wife, Betsy, sons Cory and Scott, daughter Tracey, and seven grandchildren.

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