Owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm celebrates after his filly Songbird captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies on October 31, 2015 during the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Photo by Breeders' Cup/Dan Dry.
Rick Porter, who campaigned some of Thoroughbred racing’s top runners under his Fox Hill Farms banner, has died at the age of 80, it was announced on June 7.
Porter had battled cancer in various forms for over two decades and, according to Fox Hill Farms racing assistant Victoria Keith, the past six years had been particularly taxing, beating one supposed terminal cancer only to eventually succumb to the toll the fight took on him. Despite the illness wreaking havoc, Porter still made a point to attend the races whenever possible as he credited his star runners like champion Songbird for giving him strength and motivation.
“Horse racing was one of Rick’s passions, and he was very proud of his stable’s accomplishments,” Keith said in a release announcing Porter’s passing.
Having purchased his first horse in 1994, Porter’s signature red and white silks and became a fixture at racing’s top level. The native of Wilmington, Delaware campaigned the likes of two-time Eclipse Award winner Songbird, 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, 2009 champion sprinter Kodiak Kowboy, and Grade 1 winners Hard Spun, Jostle, Joyful Victory, and Omaha Beach as well as standouts Friesan Fire and the brilliant but ill-fated filly Eight Belles.
Among the many in the sport most impacted by Porter’s wisdom and wit was trainer Larry Jones, who conditioned several of Fox Hill Farms’ top horses including Harve de Grace and Hard Spun. The owner-trainer duo endured one of the greatest tragedies on a national stage when Eight Belles suffered a fatal injury on the gallop out following her runner-up finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby (G1) but saw their professional and personal bond strengthened in the years that followed.
When Jones told Porter in 2010 he was coming back to training after a self-imposed, year-long retirement, they picked up right where they had left off and then entered a new stratosphere together when Havre de Grace put together her championship campaign in 2011 that included her becoming just the second female ever to capture the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes.
As Jones speaks Porter’s name, the reverence in his voice comes through even stronger than his Kentucky accent as he talks about the man he credits with both putting him on the industry map and blessing him with a friendship for the ages.
“The only thing I can really say other than him becoming a very dear friend and our supporter is how the only thing he cared about was what was best for the horse,” Jones said of Porter’s passing. “Although it didn’t always happen…he never ever wanted to get to the last race of a horse’s career. Every horse I can think that we retired, retired with a very good life ahead of them. With Havre de Grace, her injury was career threatening to her because of who she was, but a normal horse could have probably gone ahead and performed. But that’s not what he was about.
“Not saying that things didn’t ever go wrong but it was never push it and see if we could get one more race. That was never in the ordeal. He was just a very dear man to me. Basically, between him and (Airdrie Stud owner) Brereton Jones, they made my career.”
Porter’s devotion to his horses was matched by his desire to be transparent in his dealings. When he announced in August 2017 that the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Songbird was being retired after it was discovered the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro had damage to her hind end and a severe bone chip, he posted the vet report and x-rays from her evaluation at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital on Fox Hill Farms’ Facebook page.
“His horses’ well-being was always his top priority over any trophy,” Keith said in the release. “He believed in transparency, sharing vet reports publicly and being open with injuries and considerations regarding stable management. He encouraged fan interaction, making them feel part of the team. He welcomed the challenge of the best meeting the best on the track, resulting in some of the most memorable match-ups of the past decades.”
One of those memorable moments that resulted in part from Porter’s sporting nature came in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) at Santa Anita Park when Songbird suffered the first loss of her career when she was nosed out on the wire by fellow champion Beholder following one of the greatest stretch duels in recent times. Even in defeat, there was celebration as B. Wayne Hughes, owner of Spendthrift Farm, which owned Beholder, had been instrumental in getting Porter admitted to a clinical trial in his battle against cancer.
“We are saddened to hear of the passing of Rick Porter. He has been not only an influential force in the sport of horse racing, but also a friend to Spendthrift Farm and B. Wayne Hughes,” Spendthrift Farm posted in a statement on Twitter. “Our sincerest condolences to his friends, family and anyone who had the pleasure of knowing him. He will be greatly missed.”
In addition to his horses’ on-track achievements, Porter also helped found the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization, which Keith stated has rehomed over 250 at-risk horses in the past few years.
Porter was married to his wife Betsy for 59 years and together they had two sons, Cory and Scott, and a daughter, Tracey. Funeral arrangements are pending.
“It was never an employer and employee relationship between he and I. We were friends. And we proceeded and did things as friends,” Jones said. “That to me, that was the best thing out of all of it. He was a very dear man, and I lost a very dear friend.”