02/11/2010 12:00AM

Early hurdles behind, Biker Boy may be due


There were early omens that May 3, 2008, might be a good day for Rick Porter. From his hotel room in Louisville, Ky., Porter watched in delight as Biker Boy, a colt in whom he had recently purchased majority interest, streaked to an impressive victory on the first race of the Kentucky Derby Day card at Churchill Downs.

"It was way too early to be out there watching live, as long a day as Derby Day is," Porter said earlier this week from his winter home in Jupiter Island, Fla. "So we just watched the race on TV. It was a great start to the day."

The day would continue to go well for Porter and his family - until, of course, Eight Belles broke down shortly after finishing second to Big Brown in the Derby. Eight Belles, owned by Porter's Fox Hill Farms, instantly became the poster child for the ills of racing. The breakdown and subsequent outcry propelled substantial changes in the way the sport is viewed and governed; formation of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance was the most notable outgrowth of the incident.

"We all know what happened that day, and all that came after," said Porter, a 69-year-old car dealer from Delaware.

Life has gone on for Fox Hill and Porter. Biker Boy, now a footnote to that unforgettable day, also has soldiered on, albeit in stops and starts. A 5-year-old with nine career races, he has been alternately brilliant and disappointing, but Porter and trainer Nick Zito said they are hoping for more brilliance as he gets his 2010 campaign under way Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Biker Boy, with Jose Lezcano to ride, will be among the horses taking a run at heavily favored Munnings in the Grade 2, $150,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship at Hallandale Beach, Fla.

"Most of the time, he's performed very admirably," said Zito.

Biker Boy's career has twice been interrupted by minor ankle surgeries. The first came after his victory on Derby Day, when he had skipped conditions to capture a second-level allowance fresh off a maiden score that March at Gulfstream. From that first surgery, Biker Boy returned to easily win back-to-back allowances at the 2009 Gulfstream meet, then finished fourth as part of a favored entry in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 4, 2009. Sent to Churchill, he had to undergo surgery 16 days after the Carter because he was injured in a freak accident involving a pony one morning.

Since returning from the second surgery, Biker Boy has raced three times, finishing second in a Philadelphia Park allowance, winning a Belmont Park allowance, and most recently finishing fifth under Cornelio Velasquez as the 3-5 favorite in the Grade 3 Kenny Noe Handicap on Dec. 26 at Calder.

"You know how all that goes, that sometimes you find yourself thinking that they just don't make horses like they used to," said Zito. "We've had some tough luck with this horse, but he's back doing good right now. After his race at Calder, Velasquez came back and said he didn't think he handled the track at all, that it was really cuppy. I think he likes a fast track. Hopefully, that'll be the case for us Saturday."

Zito, 62, is famously obsessed with the Derby at this time of year. He has two Derby wins to his credit - Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994 - and as you might imagine, he is excited about the chances of Jackson Bend, who was second last month in the at Gulfstream. He also said he is optimistic that a handful of other 3-year-olds in his barn - Fly Down, Latigo Shore, and Thomas Got Even, to name a few - will continue to progress from last-out maiden victories and become viable Derby prospects in the coming weeks.

"Time-wise, we're a little behind with a few of them, but we'll see what happens," said Zito.

In the meantime, Zito and Porter will get together Saturday at Gulfstream to watch Biker Boy. Theirs is a friendship that dates to the mid-1990s.

"Rick helped me out quite a bit about 15 years ago, and we've been good friends ever since," said Zito.

"Nick is just a great guy to be around, and I really enjoy spending time with him," said Porter, who has employed several other trainers since first becoming involved as an owner in 1994, including John Servis, Barclay Tagg, Larry Jones, and Tony Dutrow.

Richard Brand, a New York businessman and longtime Zito client, was the sole owner of Biker Boy before his maiden victory March 2008 at Gulfstream. After the win, Zito arranged a deal whereby Porter purchased 51 percent from Brand.

"Nick will pick up the phone once in a while and say he has a horse for me," said Porter, whose top Fox Hill runners besides Eight Belles have included such standouts as Jostle, Round Pond, Hard Spun, Rockport Harbor, Kodiak Kowboy, and Winslow Homer, the 2010 Holy Bull winner recently knocked off the Derby trail with an injury. "This was one of the times we got a deal done."

For various reasons, Porter has never seen Biker Boy race in person. So when he makes the 90-minute southbound drive Saturday to Gulfstream, he is hoping he'll like what he sees.

"This horse has shown he can run if he's right," said Porter. "Nick really did feel the horse didn't like the track at all at Calder. There's going to be some tough company in there against us, but the horse has shown he has a lot of talent. Maybe we can bring him some good luck."