Defying the odds with the help of one very special filly
Michele MacDonald talks to leading owner Rick Porter
Rick Porter has experienced much more than the standard share of exhilarating highs and heartbreaking lows, both in racing and life in general.
For much of the past several years, Porter, 77, has been battling the demons of cancer, tumors that have sent him through various treatments and at least once into critical condition when it was uncertain he would survive.
Coinciding with that crisis has been the starburst career of his twice American champion filly Songbird, who Porter credits with uplifting him through his illness and giving him the will to battle onward.
Their remarkable journey together will come to a dramatic conclusion on November 6 when Porter will watch Songbird enter the sales ring at Fasig-Tipton in Kentucky as one of the most illustrious broodmare prospects ever to grace that pavilion. Her record stands at 13 wins in 15 starts, including nine Grade 1 victories, and $4,692,000 in earnings.
But Porter hopes there will be much more to their individual stories.
About one month prior to the sale, Porter received news that, following his inclusion in a clinical trial at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with help from Spendthrift Farm owner B Wayne Hughes, his cancer is in "complete remission".
"It’s an absolute miracle," Porter says.
Songbird – whose future foals undoubtedly will be highly prized for their racing potential – has been a major inspiration in Porter’s return to health and he describes her as "definitely a once-in-a-lifetime horse".
"She wasn’t going to change anything [about the cancer] but she gave me so much to look forward to – I so much wanted to see her run and to see just how good she was. I’ve never had a horse like her before."
While selling such a special individual is fraught with unique tensions, Porter is more disappointed that he will not get to see Songbird race anymore than he is about watching her go through the sales ring.
Selling his horses after they are retired from competition has been an integral part of his successful racing game plan. That strategy has provided exceptional capital for his stable in years past, and he is no stranger to the high theatrics of sending a champion through the auction ring.
At Fasig-Tipton’s 2012 November sale, he sat transfixed in the pavilion as bidding on his Havre De Grace, a $380,000 yearling purchase who was voted the 2011 American Horse of the Year, soared higher and higher.
Before, during and after the hammer fell on a world-record $10 million bid from Mandy Pope of Whisper Hill Farm, Porter says he experienced chills of excitement watching Havre De Grace draw the desire of potential buyers. Yet he purposefully tried not to show any emotion.
Out of this world
Fasig-Tipton commentator Terence Collier had asked for quiet in the pavilion, and there were more bidders still vying for the mare once she had reached the stratospheric $6m level than most could remember at any time in the past.
"At the end, you heard Terence say, ‘Mr Porter, remind me never to play poker with you,’" Porter recalled with a chuckle.
"I never cracked a smile. You can’t when people are bidding a lot of money," he says. "I was just enjoying looking at her and seeing how much everybody else wanted her."
But even that Horse of the Year, who Porter called "amazing," is not the same caliber as Songbird, he says.
"Look at their race records. Songbird ran 15 times and lost only twice and by a total distance of only a neck," he says, counting the margin of her narrowest of defeats by another multiple champion, Hughes’s Beholder, in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff as less than whiskers.
Neck and neck
"I think that’s the best race I ever saw, particularly from the quarter pole to home," Porter says. "Whoever had their neck stretched out the most at the wire would be the winner.
"If I had to get beat, I’m glad to get beaten by someone who helped me very much and by a Hall of Fame trainer in Richard Mandella. We got beat by the big boys," he says.
In what proved to be Songbird’s finale, she was caught at the end of the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga this summer by another top female runner, Forever Unbridled, losing by a neck.
Following that race, Songbird was given a thorough veterinary examination and was found to have enlarged suspensory ligaments in both hind legs as well as bone bruising.
Porter, who was devastated when another top filly he campaigned, Eight Belles, shattered both front ankles after finishing a gallant second to champion Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, ruled out taking any risks with Songbird.
Peace at last
"We have a situation where it would be dangerous for Songbird to continue training," Porter says in announcing her retirement from racing. "We absolutely cannot risk having another Eight Belles kind of devastation and are ultimately happy that Songbird is retiring in good health."
Fasig-Tipton is a natural destination for Porter with Songbird as the company’s Newtown Paddocks facility in Lexington has been the scene of more than one unforgettable result. In addition to Havre De Grace, Porter has sold two other highly valuable broodmare prospects at the single-session auction.
In 2007, he saw his Round Pond, who had triumphed in the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, bring $5.75m from John Ferguson on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed, with that price being the highest in 22 years at Fasig-Tipton. Round Pond was a $105,000 yearling acquisition.
Porter scored again when his $400,000 two-year-old purchase Joyful Victory, a daughter of Tapit who went on to Grade 1 success and amassed more than $1.2m while racing, brought $2m from Aaron and Marie Jones at the sale in 2013.
A native of Delaware whose family business, Porter Automotive Group, was started by his grandfather in 1925, Porter went to the races with his family while growing up and bought his first racehorse in 1994.
Over time, he has stuck with a relatively simple plan that has yielded gold. He works with bloodstock agent Tom McGreevey to identify potential athletes at yearling sales, relies on his assistant Victoria for research information, and then sticks with a budget of about $3-4m annually.
He aims to buy horses primarily based on their athletic potential but who also possess enough pedigree that they can valuable as stallions or broodmares, he says.
In addition to his top-class fillies, Porter hit a huge jackpot with Hard Spun. The son of Danzig was purchased for $400,000 after failing to meet his reserve at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale, and Porter sold breeding rights in the colt to Darley for a reported total of $35m, including a bonus for a Grade 1 win.
Porter has also raced 2009 champion sprinter Kodiak Kowboy and Grade 2 winners Rockport Harbor and Old Fashioned, all of whom went on to stud careers.
But none have compared to Songbird, a particularly attractive daughter of Medaglia D’Oro and the multiple stakes-winning West Acre mare Ivanavinalot. Songbird soared to become a national heroine in America to her legions of fans.
"She’s meant more to me than any other," Porter says.
With his cancer in remission, Porter returned to the yearling sales this fall, spending a total of $3,025,000 on five colts and five fillies at Keeneland in addition to the $675,000 he spent on a colt and a filly at Saratoga.
Overall, he says he has 14 yearlings and 17 two-year-olds as he looks to the future while hoping for another champion. Among the most promising are a juvenile Medaglia D’Oro filly named Forever and a two-year-old Curlin colt named New Colossus.
"We’ll have a lot of activity coming up in the next year. I’d like to get another good horse. But I’m not even thinking about another Songbird – you really can’t ever imagine that," Porter says.
Call for advocacy organisation to protect owners’ interests
As one of the leading owners in America, Rick Porter believes that an advocacy organisation with a mission to protect the interests of owners would be a major asset to those who invest so much into putting the sport’s athletes on course.
"The owners need a strong association so that we can have a fair chance in dealing with the racetracks. We need more strength – there are a lot of things that would be different if the owners had more say, and the racetracks couldn’t go on without us," Porter said.
He also suggests that a new lottery type of wager that would not require handicapping skills and knowledge of racing would be a boon in generating more betting revenue for the sport.
"The biggest thing we need to do is to try to figure out how to get more people interested in betting," Porter said. "[A lottery type wager] would make it easier and could increase handle meaningfully."
Social media, which Porter’s Fox Hill Farm uses to keep more than 8,000 Facebook followers up to date on the stable’s horses, could be better utilised. "That would be the biggest way to get a lottery type wager going," he said.
After buying yearlings in what proved to be a strong market this summer, Porter said he sees as a resurgence in racing and breeding.
"The stock market’s strength had to have helped [buyers’] net worth, but maybe people are just interested in buying horses right now," he said.
Regarding his own stable, he and his assistant Victoria Keith place particular emphasis on finding special names for his horses. Songbird was named after the late American singer Eva Cassidy, whose album of that name was propelled into a hit after it was promoted primarily by the late Sir Terry Wogan on his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show.