05/02/2013 2:23PM

Kentucky Derby: Porter salutes World War II veterans

Barbara D. Livingston
Exercise rider Javier Herrera has a little trouble restraining Normandy Invasion during an eventful morning gallop Thursday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. − Four World War II veterans, three of whom fought during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 − better known as D-Day − will attend Saturday’s Kentucky Derby as guests of Rick Porter, the owner of the 3-year-old Normandy Invasion.

Porter said he and his assistant Victoria Keith received e-mails from more than 50 people with connections to D-Day, and they selected four to come to the race with them. The four are J.J. Witmeyer, 92; Alan Reeves, 91; Bill Wilch, 89; Ray Woods, age unknown.

Porter, 72, served two years in the Army. He said Reeves, of San Diego, had contacted Keith about somehow getting involved with the horse. Reeves served as a French translator during the war.

“[Keith] called me about it, and I said, ‘We’re pretty stupid, we should have thought of doing something to honor the vets that were part of D-day,’ ” Porter said.

Witmeyer, of New Orleans, is a highly decorated veteran with two purple hearts and in 2009 received the Legion of Merit, France’s top honor.

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Porter said NBC was scheduled to interview the veterans Friday to air during the station’s broadcast of Saturday’s Derby.

Porter said he has previously named horses in honor of the invasion of Normandy, including Arromanches, which is a French commune on the coast of Normandy. Arromanches began his career with Porter but eventually became a successful sprinter for myriad trainers in New York, at one point winning eight consecutive races in 2001.

Porter said he was surprised to find the name Normandy Invasion not taken when he submitted it to the Jockey Club.

“There are a lot of young people that really don’t understand what happened on D-Day,” Porter said. “If NBC does a little story on them maybe it’ll spike some interest in them.”

Porter noted there are five beaches in Normandy, and that his colt drew post 5 and will wear that saddle towel number. Eight Belles, the filly who finished second in the 2008 Derby for Porter, also broke from post 5. Eight Belles suffered fatal injuries while galloping out after the race.

“It never leaves you, but I try to block it out of my mind,” said Porter, who also finished second in the 2007 Derby with Hard Spun. “It’s been five years. You never forget her. Steve Hargrave, the stall superintendent, had a picture he gave me which probably was of one of her last steps before she broke down. That’s a good memory that she was still standing, but I don’t think she took many more steps. Eight Belles was number 5. We’ll redeem it maybe.”

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