(AP) Column: ‘If he’s as lucky as us, he’ll win.’
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
The four of them will be sitting on Millionaires Row, which only begins to hint at their real worth, and rooting for a horse named Normandy Invasion.
Bet the bay colt at the Kentucky Derby come Saturday, if only because you won’t find a backstory half this good.
For most of his 20 years in the business, ex-soldier and auto dealer-turned-thoroughbred owner Rick Porter has been naming horses to honor veterans. Porter never saw combat–he served in Korea for two years in the 1960s–and never forgot a haunting visit to the Normandy beaches in 1994, the 50th anniversary of the invasion that turned the tide in World War II.
Last year, after 10 years on the inactive list, the name became available again and Porter slapped the weighty moniker on his most promising 2-year-old. Once it began pinging around the Web, emails from veterans followed, a trickle at first and then a steady stream. Porter answered as many as he could and finally settled on inviting four to be his guests.
Awaiting their arrival at Churchill Downs, Porter stood outside his barn Friday morning and looked over at the four folding chairs set up in the shade.
Alan Reeves, 91, of San Diego was the principal organizer, which made plenty of sense. He worked for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, assigned to the Supreme Command, and later saw action in southern France. With Porter’s help, he settled on three other soldiers who actually landed on the beaches at Normandy.
The four gathered just down the road in Lexington and began telling war stories late into Thursday night at the bar of their hotel. With only so much sleep, they resumed beneath overcast skies in front of an audience and not far from where Normandy Invasion, a 12-1 shot, lolled in the grass alongside Barn 42.
A marksman’s badge was pinned above the breast pocket of a natty tan sport jacket. Ten ribbons hung just below it.
The four went on like that for 10 minutes, hearing snippets of each other’s stories and sometimes finishing the sentences. One running joke involved the French Legion of Merit awarded Witmeyer, and how he’d had to stand still at the ceremony while being kissed by several generals.
Porter stood off to the side, beaming.
At one point, he had trainer Chad Brown bring Normandy Invasion over to the group for photos. All four grabbed their canes and posed along one side.
By the time he regained his seat, Reeves was similarly inspired. He looked over in Porter’s direction and began telling yet another story about Eisenhower.
Wilch and Woods, meanwhile, were back to spinning stories about Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and fallen comrades, ending nearly every one with a wish that more of them were around to drink in the VIP treatment.
The four men have been collecting money to wager from almost everyone they know. Nearly all of it will go on Normandy Invasion. Whatever is left over likely will end up paying the bar bills that Porter’s largesse doesn’t cover.
The owner was enjoying the scene too much to worry about the cost, though winning it all could prove to be a double-edged sword. If Normandy Invasion finds his way to the winner’s circle, money won’t be a problem. On the other hand, that would touch off one hell of a celebration by a foursome whose hardiness should never be doubted.
But Porter figures he’s ahead either way.
He got into racing seriously soon after one of the managers at a dealership took him to watch a horse he owned. Porter had been to Delaware Park several times as a kid, and when the first horse he ever owned _ “Name of Dronetta, don’t ask me how she got the name” _ won her first race, Porter was hooked.
His toughest day in the racket came when his filly, Eight Belles, broke down just past the finish line in the 2008 Derby and had to be euthanized on the track.
Reeves threw the compliment back.
Two seats over, Wilch nodded in agreement.
Then Wilch tapped the breast pocket of his jacket, where a photo of Mary Rita sat.