07/11/2017 3:30PM

Songbird may finally give Porter a long-sought Delaware Handicap win

Barbara D. Livingston
Owner Rick Porter, here with Songbird after the 2016 Coaching Club American Oaks, is a native of Delaware and has been going to Delaware Park since he was a child.

Rick Porter has run two horses in the Delaware Handicap. Havre de Grace was beaten a nose at 3-5 during her 2011 Horse of the Year season, and Jostle finished fourth at 4-5 in 2001.

Havre de Grace’s loss was especially difficult for Porter as it came at the hands of Blind Luck in the sixth and final meeting between the two fillies. Blind Luck moved up outside Havre de Grace in upper stretch and the pair battled eyeball to eyeball the final furlong in one of the all-time great editions of the Delaware Handicap.

“That damn Blind Luck beat me,” Porter said. “It was something. It was a great race.”

On Saturday, Porter will take another shot at the Del Cap when he sends out the overwhelming favorite, two-time champion Songbird, against five seemingly overmatched rivals. In a perfect “If you can’t beat them, join them” scenario, Songbird is conditioned by Jerry Hollendorfer, who trained Blind Luck.

Porter, who is battling cancer, hopes to be on hand for the race.

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Songbird is 12 for 13 in her career, and separated from perfection by just a nose. On Saturday, she will carry 124 pounds and concede from nine to 13 pounds in the 1 1/4-mile Del Cap. Mike Smith, the only jockey to ever ride her in a race, will be aboard.

“Mike has made it clear to me he is not worried about the distance,” Porter said. “And I’ve known Mike a long time. His father worked at Philadelphia Park. Mike rode Jostle, my first good horse.”

Porter, 77, has deep roots in the First State. He is a native of Wilmington, Del., and has been going to Delaware Park since he was a kid.

“My parents liked the races,” Porter said. “We’d go to the paddock with umbrellas and have lunch. My parents would let me pick the numbers we’d bet.”

Porter’s grandfather started the family’s flagship auto dealership in Newark (pronounced new-arc), Del., in 1925. When Rick took over the business he expanded its reach, opening branches in the southern New Jersey and Philadelphia markets.

In 1996, a fire broke out in Porter’s Wilmington headquarters and he had nowhere to house his employees.

“There was this guy who had been hounding me about buying the dealerships, and when he called that time, I told him if the price was right I would sell,” Porter said.

The only dealership Porter retained was the original Newark location, which today is run by his oldest son, Cory. Porter owned some horses at the time of the sale, but afterward “pushed the budget up and got in at a different level.”

He has had amazing success, especially with fillies. Hard Spun, the 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up who stands at Darley at Jonabell in Lexington, Ky, turned out to be one of his more important horses.

“I hit a home run with Hard Spun,” Porter said. “He picked up all the money I had lost prior.”

Almost all of Porter’s best horses have run at Delaware Park. This is partially because Larry Jones, who has trained many of them, is based there.

The list includes Hard Spun, Round Pond, Eight Belles, Friesan Fire, Joyful Victory, Normandy Invasion, Cassatt, and Zonk, who was trained by John Servis and paid $61 when she won the 2001 Delaware Oaks, the second-richest race of the Delaware meet.

“I was going up the escalator with Servis and noticed she was like 35-1,” Porter said. “I made a nice bet on her.”

While Porter admits the $750,000 Delaware Handicap is close to his heart, his career in the auto industry taught him to always keep an eye on the bottom line.

“The Delaware Handicap does have special meaning to me, but if it didn’t offer what it does now, I wouldn’t be there,” he said. “That just isn’t me.”

Songbird has come along at a pivotal time for Porter. He was diagnosed with a slow-growing form of lymphoma many years ago.

“All the doctors told me I would die of something else before it got me,” he said.

But his condition took a turn for the worse in April 2016.

“When I got back from California after the Santa Anita Oaks, I got very sick in Florida,” he said. “It had transformed into a different type of lymphoma. That only happens to 2 percent of the people.”

Porter and his wife, Betsy, have been in Boston since early June while he participates in a clinical trial for a new and promising cancer drug. It is possible he will be released from the program this week.

“It’s the latest and most advanced cancer research project for lymphoma there is,” Porter said. “I’m the 25th guy in the trial here. They are doing other trials around the country. This treatment is very good for blood cancers.”

While undergoing treatment, Porter has had plenty of time to think not only about his future, but also about what might be next for Songbird. He mused about possibly sending Songbird against male horses – like he did with Havre de Grace, who won the 2011 Woodward.

“All I can do is try to stay healthy and enjoy my family,” he said. “But Jerry better get ready. I’ve got some ideas for Songbird. Maybe she’ll take on Stellar Wind or face the boys. I’ve always liked the Woodward – so did Havre de Grace – but first we have to run this race Saturday.”