Guest Blog: Q&A With Eight Belles Owner Rick Porter

Hey everyone. Im on vacation for the holidays but wanted to check in with a final blog before the New Year. This one is a nice Q&A with owner Rick Porter courtesy of Wesley D. White. I hope you enjoy. I want to make sure to wish everyone a terrific holiday season and a safe and fun New Year. I look forward to returning at the start of the new calendar year to begin our Derby talk. Take care and talk to you soon. Jason


By: Wesley D. White

The story begins in 1994; Fox Hill Farm owner Rick Porter purchased his first horse.  Since that time Fox Hill Farm has campaigned the likes of Round Pond, Hard Spun, Rockport Harbor, Jostle, Old Fashioned and Eight Belles.  The most impressive aspect of the Fox Hill Farm operation is that FHF does not have the immense volume of horses in training as other stables might.  But the quality that FHF puts out there on the track is quite impressive.  I was privileged to be able to and talk with the owner of Fox Hill Farm, Mr. Rick Porter.

Wdw: You must be very proud of your stable and the accomplishments of your runners. What is the secret with regards to the success you’ve been able to have although your operation is not as large as some others?

RP: Several years after getting involved in thoroughbred horse racing, I realized the most important ingredients of a successful racing operation is the same as any other business venture I had been involved in. That was surrounding myself with the best possible people and developing a long range plan that would give me a chance to be successful in one of the toughest sports in the world. I did that over several years trying to improve on my relationships and employees as well as modifying and improving the plan. The plan eventually materialized with a couple important facets. First was to purchase approximately the same number of yearlings every year. I continued to improve the selection process and continued to try to find the best trainers in the Northeast.

Wdw: Breeding is always an integral part of the industry. How is it you choose the horses that you purchase at the yearling sales?

RP: Tom McGreevy is our key to the selection process. He looks at every horse in most of the major yearling and two year old sales without regard to pedigree. When he refines his short list, he takes me around to inspect the horses on his list. I review the pedigree as well as the overall confirmation of the horse and we whittle the list down to where we decide to vet our final list and now have heart scans done on them. We use the heart scans as just another tool. Tom and I feel it has been a big help. Larry Jones encouraged me to use the heart results to help improve our selection process.

Wdw: Unbridled Song seems to be a stallion that you enjoy a great deal when looking at yearlings. There is a perception that UBS passes on soundness issues, what is your opinion on this concern?

RP: I have had tremendous success with Unbridled Song offspring. I have had some unsoundness issues just as I have had with other stallion offspring. He seems to “stamp out” the type of individual horse that Tom and I love. Many of them just have that champion look about them.

Wdw: I believe we were all shocked when we heard that Larry Jones was going to retire. What were your thoughts on the matter, and regarding your 2-year olds, how did you choose a new trainer>

RP: I was as shocked as everyone with Larry’s announcement. I think he just needs a break and I believe he will regroup in a year or two and keep his stable size more manageable. He is hands on and needs to keep all his horses under one roof. I think Larry feels 40-50 head is perfect for him.
I had interviewed many trainers over the last three years and Tony Dutrow was number one on my list. He agreed to take my horses after several discussions about our philosophies. Things couldn’t be better. I also chose Barclay Tagg after a lengthy interview and he took a smaller amount of my two year olds primarily because I like to keep them at Delaware Park. I take advantage of the tremendous Delaware Certified Program.

Wdw: Technology now allows fans to get closer to the game.  What is your take on the internet’s affect on the game, websites and message boards that allow for up close communication between the connections and fans?

RP: I think technology has continued to take over a big part of the betting. It also provides lots of information through web sites, etc. I think eventually, unless we can figure a way to increase live attendance, it will represent a huge amount of the handle.

Wdw: There has been a great deal said about the different surfaces that are at different tracks. What is your feel for the differences between synthetics and dirt?

RP: I am 100% in favor of dirt. If we had a commissioner of Thoroughbred horse racing, as we should, he could appoint a committee to continually inspect all racetracks to insure that they are as safe as possible. There would be a standard of safety for all dirt tracks.

Wdw:  Looking forward to 2010 and a brand new decade, what are some changes that you’d like to see implemented in the game? Would a governing body or committee seem warranted going forward?

RP: I think we need the government to amend the Thoroughbred Horseracing Act to mandate our sport to appoint a Commissioner that leads a central governing body just like every other major sport. That would fix just about everything.

Wdw: Mr. Porter, looking back at 2008 and your decision to run Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby, what gave you indication that she belonged in the race, and do you have any regrets?

RP: Eight Belles’ times including fractions, Beyer's and rags were as good as any horse in the race except Big Brown. He was not that much better. Another factor was her size. She was a big strong filly and was very mature physically. She was a smart filly. The only regret I have is that she broke down and had to be put down. It was devastating. I do not blame anyone including myself for what happened. Larry felt she could be competitive in the Oaks or the Derby. I still think I made an intelligent decision with the help of input from my trainer.

Wdw: There are detractors and others out there that have said from the moment that Eight Belles collapsed that she did not belong in the race.  What are your thoughts about that statement? And what do you think of the statement that she didn’t belong?

RP: That really irritates me even today. They didn't have the information that our team had and they just made a statement without enough knowledge to make an intelligent one. Her finish should be enough proof that she belonged. What else do you need? It was a tragedy and it was a fluke that she took a bad step. Any of the horses could have taken a bad step. Mike Smith told Larry after the race that he was right behind her galloping out and she looked perfect with her ears pricked and galloping normally. Shame on those detractors and the others that are making statements without fact.

Wdw: I recall speaking with you days after the Derby and I could tell that it was a difficult time for you, how long did it take you to get back into the swing of your regular routine and how often do you think of Eight Belles even today?

RP: It was something that is hard to explain. My family and I were devastated and I felt like I had a hole in my stomach. I seriously considered getting out of the sport for some time but finally convinced myself that unfortunately these things happen in thoroughbred horse racing. It was the Kentucky derby though and that made it worse. It was on the world stage and I blamed myself at first. I finally came to terms with what happened and tried to focus on the good that was coming from something so terrible. My family and I and my friends think about eight belles quite often and I am sure we always will as long as we live.

Wdw: If there were one thing that you could tell the world about Eight Belles that we would want to know about her what would it be?

RP:  That she was so talented, kind and beautiful. She was the kind of horse that comes to an owner once in a lifetime. it was just horrible the way it came to an end. She will be remembered for a long time and I still hope that she could be the catalyst for a central governing body including a commissioner. That would be a great legacy for her and well deserved.

Wdw Going forward and in the future, if you had a filly that was good enough, fast enough, and competitive enough to run against the boys again at the highest level, how would you deal with that decision to run her against the boys?

RP: Without hesitation, I would do the same as I did with Eight Belles. I would weigh all the facts like I did with Eight Belles and if my trainer was in agreement that we should run, we would enter and run.

I want to give special consideration to Mr. Rick Porter for taking the time to sit down and speak with us at length about his stable, especially with regard to answering the questions about the beloved Eight Belles.  At times we allow ourselves to get to close to horses, we follow them wherever they go and we track their progress each and every day.  We allow ourselves to become so emotionally involved that we feel the horse is a part of our own family.  The world got to know Eight Belles in the lead up to the Kentucky Derby of 2008, the whole world fell in love with Eight Belles as she strode to the paddock at Churchill, they all were witness to the amazing presence that she brought to any racetrack that she ran at.   Eight Belles is and always will be a true champion and will never be forgotten in the hearts of those that love her.

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