04/23/2008 11:00PM

Eight Belles decision based on draw

Sunny Taylor/Coady Photography
Eight Belles

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Rick Porter tried to get to the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with Rockport Harbor, but had to abandon ship when the colt's feet failed him. Porter got there last year and came tantalizingly close to winning with Hard Spun, who outran everyone but Street Sense. This year, Porter is back for more, with both caveats and a chance to make history.

Porter, who races as Fox Hill Farms, owns Eight Belles, who has developed into one of the best 3-year-old fillies in the nation. She has won four straight races, most recently the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Eight Belles will be entered in the May 2 Kentucky Oaks and will be one of the top choices in that race, if not the favorite, if she runs.

But Porter is holding out the hope of running Eight Belles the following day, May 3, in the 134th Kentucky Derby here at Churchill Downs.

In the 133 previous Derbies, 130 have been won by males, just three by fillies. For Eight Belles to join a select list that includes Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988), she will have to outrun 19 males. First, though, she needs to run in the Derby, and that will only happen, Porter said, if she continues to train well over the next week and then lands a suitable post when entries are taken and posts selected next Wednesday.

Make no mistake, though. Given the choice, Porter wants Eight Belles in the Derby. He spent $6,000 last month to make Eight Belles a late nominee to the Triple Crown. Like Hard Spun, Eight Belles is trained by Larry Jones.

"Here's the exact plan," Porter said Wednesday from Florida, one of the four states where his family has auto dealerships. "If she's training well, she will enter the Oaks and enter the Derby. I've made it clear to Larry that I don't have to run in the Derby. I don't have Derby Fever. But I do think she belongs in the Derby. The only thing that would keep me from running is a real bad post. She's not a real good breaker."

In a large field, that's certainly a concern. The fallback position would be the Oaks. But if Eight Belles runs in the Oaks, and scratches from the Derby, her entry in the Derby would likely deprive another horse of a starting slot. The Derby is capped at 20 runners, based on graded stakes earnings. More than 20 are likely to enter the Derby. Once entries are taken Wednesday, no one else can get in; there is no also-eligible list in the Derby.

Entries for the Oaks are taken Tuesday. Porter said if the sequence, hypothetically, was reversed, and the Derby entries were taken prior to the Oaks, he would not enter the Oaks if Eight Belles first drew a good post in the Derby. But given the sequence, Porter believes the only logical plan is to cross-enter.

"I'm ready to take the heat," he said. "I'm not doing this to deprive someone a chance of running in the Derby. Because she's a filly, we're able to do this. I don't think it's unsportsmanlike, and it's within the rules."

Porter is the third generation of his family to run Porter Automotive Group, which was founded by his grandfather, John Sr., in 1925 as one of the first Buick and Chevrolet dealers in the United States. There are now franchises in Delaware, where Porter makes his home near Wilmington, as well as Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Porter's son, Cory, now runs the day-to-day business, which allows Porter to become even more active in racing.

And he's plenty active. Porter, 67, said he currently has 45 horses, including 16 2-year-olds. He owns most outright, with Jones and Steve Klesaris as his primary trainers, and he also has several in partnership, most notably Kodiak Kowboy, who is scheduled to run here Saturday in the Derby Trial for trainer Steve Asmussen.

Jostle, a multiple Grade 1-winning filly, and Rockport Harbor, who won the 2004 Remsen Stakes but was plagued by foot problems the following spring, were among Porter's first big horses. Since then, Porter has won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff with Round Pond and had a terrific season last year with the versatile, brilliant Hard Spun, who finished second in the Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles and won the Grade 1 King's Bishop at seven furlongs.

Porter is also building a private, 38-stall barn at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland, less than a half-hour from his home.

He is hands on. In recent years, Porter has developed, and ended, relationships with John Servis - who trained Rockport Harbor and, initially, Round Pond - and Michael Matz, who trained Round Pond to her BC Distaff victory.

Running a filly in the Derby would be about as high as one could aim. Since Winning Colors 20 years ago, just three fillies - Serena's Song in 1995, and both Excellent Meeting and Three Ring in 1999 - have run in the Derby. Rare is the filly who runs in the Derby. Rarer still is the one who wins it. Eight Belles may be the first filly in nine years to get that chance.

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

* Tale of Ekati, the Wood Memorial winner, worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 at Keeneland for trainer Barclay Tagg. He is scheduled to have his final Derby work next week at Churchill Downs.

* The graded stakes earnings list had no defections from the top 20, though Behindatthear, Proud Spell, and Salute the Sarge are in various stages of uncertainty for the Derby. Salute the Sarge, currently 14th on the list, has returned to his base at Hollywood Park following his poor performance in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland last Saturday. Eric Guillot, who trains Salute the Sarge for Michael Moreno's Southern Equine Stable, said "it's all in the air right now" as to whether Salute the Sarge will run in the Derby.

"My partner changes his mind three times every 24 hours," Guillot said. "He's probably not going to run in the Derby. But my partner changes his mind, and if he's says to go at the last minute, he's going to go."

WHO’S HOT: This is the final Derby Watch for 2008 – entries for the Kentucky Derby are drawn Wednesday – and there are two newcomers this week. Behindatthebar was added following his victory in the Lexington Stakes last Saturday. He is 30-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper. Proud Spell is far more likely to run in the Kentucky Oaks on May 2, but since she remains a slight possibility for the Derby – and is second overall on the graded stakes earnings list – she was added, too. Watchmaker pegged her at 40-1, the same price as stablemate Eight Belles. The defection of War Pass caused Watchmaker to significantly lower the odds on Illinois Derby winner Recapturetheglory, who is now 20-1 after being 40-1 a week ago.

WHO’S NOT: War Pass was dropped from the list after being diagnosed last weekend with a slight fracture in a sesamoid bone in his left front leg. Salute the Sarge also came off the list after running poorly in the Lexington. He is 14th on the graded stakes earnings list and has yet to be ruled out of the Derby, but his trainer, Eric Guillot, on Wednesday said Salute the Sarge would “probably not” run in the Derby. In addition, Salute the Sarge has returned to California after racing at Keeneland last Saturday, making a return trip to Kentucky unlikely and inconvenient.

ON THE BUBBLE: El Gato Malo and Hey Byrn are the next in line on the graded stakes earnings list, so they would have been the next to come on the Derby Watch list had there been definitive defections among those with more cash. Alas, they were left off the final top 25, and unless something completely unforeseen occurs, it looks like neither will get into the Derby.