The only certainty in horse racing is that something will happen that you wish you could reverse. It could be finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. It could be finishing second in the Kentucky Derby with a horse that does not make it back to the barn.
Rick Porter finished second in the 2007 Derby with Hard Spun, a colt who went on to win a few million and was sold for millions more. Porter finished second in the 2008 with Eight Belles, a filly that, while slowing down around the first turn, broke her front legs and had to be euthanized on the track.
Anybody who has ever owned, trained, ridden or cared for a horse understands the downside of the game. Inevitably, something bad will happen. You just hope it's finishing a few lengths from winning the biggest race in the country, not running second before 150,000 people and never seeing your horse alive again.
In a year's time, Porter, from Wilmington, experienced both. Now, race horse willing, he could be back for a third try at the one prize in American racing everybody wants.
At this stage, Old Fashioned, unbeaten in three starts, is more accomplished and faster than Hard Spun or Eight Belles at the end of their 2-year-old seasons. The colt won the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Thanksgiving weekend as easily as a horse can win a race.
"It looks like we got the goods right now," Porter said. "You know the deal. You've got to stay healthy and be lucky and hope he keeps improving."
Old Fashioned is by Unbridled's Song, just like Eight Belles. The colt is at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans with trainer Larry Jones, the same man behind Hard Spun and Eight Belles.
Old Fashioned could race this winter in a few Derby preps at Fair Grounds or take the Arkansas route to Kentucky.
The day after the Eight Belles Derby, Porter wondered if he wanted to stay in the game. Now, he has a way to deal with the memories when his horses race.
"When I'm watching a race, I really don't worry about something bad happening," Porter said. "Even though that happened, somehow I am able to block that out of my mind . . . It's the kind of thing you never forget, but you've got to move on."
Derby Fever is incurable.
"I'd like to go back and I'd like to win it," Porter said.
If Old Fashioned even makes it into the starting gate and Porter has a third consecutive starter in the Derby, that would be a major triumph for a stable as small as Fox Hill, Porter's stable name.
"Just getting there three times in a row would be a miracle," Porter said.
Porter paid $800,000 at the sales for Old Fashioned, a big number even for him.
"When they brought this horse out of the barn, I don't know what it was," Porter said. "He just had a look about him, as classic looking a horse as you can get."
Porter said to himself, "We're going to take this one home," but "I didn't think I was going to have to pay $800 [thousand] . . . "
In fact, had the bidding gone much higher, he was out.
"I'm surprised I went as far as I went," Porter said.
If Old Fashioned does make the Derby, it will be the fifth consecutive year a horse that debuted at Delaware Park will be in that gate with a serious chance. It was Afleet Alex in 2005, followed by Barbaro, Hard Spun and Eight Belles. That's a win, two seconds and a third in the Derby.
It is, however, quite a long way from December until May.
"You're waiting and you're waiting," Porter said. "And you hope you don't get a phone call early in the morning. The one that says Larry Jones, you don't even want to answer."
Unless you own the amazing New Mexico-bred mare Peppers Pride, unbeaten in 19 career races after earning a career-best speed figure on Dec. 14 at Sunland Park, you know your horse won't win every time. In this sport, just getting to see your horse run again is often triumph enough. *