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Rick Porter, champion horse owner and car dealer, dies

Katie Tabeling

Rick Porter II, center, poses with Omaha Beach. | DBT PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX HILL FARMS.

WILMINGTON — Rick Porter II, a champion horse owner whose name dominated car dealerships in Newark’s downtown district, died on June 8 after a long fight against cancer.

A scion of a Delaware automotive dealership family business that was founded almost a century ago, Porter was widely-known in the thoroughbred horse circuit for campaigning 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, four U.S champions, one Canadian champion and at least one Kentucky Derby runner-up.

“He will be remembered by the people he helped, from his friends to random people he just happened to cross paths with, and showing the world you can run an ethical racing business and reach the highest plateaus of success,” said Victoria Keith, Porter’s business associate at Fox Hill Farm, his Kentucky thoroughbred farm.

Porter was born in Wilmington, and attended Ursuline Academy and went on to graduate from The Tower Hill School. His love of horses started in childhood, when he would join his parents on outings to Delaware Park to watch the races. His father would make $2 show bets for him.

Porter would continue his education at the University of Delaware and the American University in Washington, D.C. In 1960, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served more than a year in South Korea. Upon leaving the armed service, he joined his father at the family business at Porter Chevrolet in Newark. The dealership was started by Porter’s grandfather in 1925.

Through his hard work, Porter Chevrolet grew to the Porter Automotive Group, a series of dealerships that stretched down Cleveland Avenue selling Fords, Hyundais, Infinitis and Nissans. At one point, Porter Automotive Group owned 12 dealerships throughout Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida. Today, Porter Automotive Group is run by his son, Cory Porter.

In 1994, Porter embraced his passion of thoroughbred horses and racing and opened Fox Hill Farm Stable in Lexington, Ky. That same year, he bought his first horse, and soon made repeated appearances in the winner’s circle. Fox Hill Farm had a career purse earnings, or money paid out to owners of horses who are high finishers, of more than $32 million, according to Equibase.

“It was his passion, but it was also his business. But he never overworked his horses, never pushed them and always listened to their limits,” Keith told the Delaware Business Times. “Grass never grew under his feet though, when he saw something that needed to be done, he got it done.”

Porter attempted to win the Kentucky Derby five times, but he came the closest in 2008 with horse Eight Belles finishing second. After crossing the finish line at Churchill Downs, Eight Belles broke down and suffered compound fractures to the front ankles. She had to be euthanized on the track.

Other notable awards include Hard Spun second place at the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; Songbird’s win at the Juvenile Fillies in 2015 and champion of the Eclipse Awards that year. Havre De Grace finished second to Blind Luck in the 2011 Delaware Handicap, and went on to be named 2011 Horse of the Year.

Porter’s background in the car business informed most of his decisions in the racing world. In a 2017 interview, he said the key to success was surrounding himself with the right people, like horse broker agent Tom McGreevy and Keith.

“As much as possible, I try to copy my ideas from my other business,” he told the Thoroughbred Daily News. “Racing is a sport but it’s also a business.”

Keith, who worked alongside Porter since 2004, characterized him as intuitive about people he met through the horse business as much as he was about horses. It led to many of his successes on the track.

“He had a sixth sense about the people he worked with, and he stuck with them. He was focused on improving the stable to the point where I’m not sure it could be improved anymore. For a sport that was known for billions of dollars, he was loyal to his people who helped build that success, and he also lifted people up,” Keith said.

In 2018, Porter founded the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization, a nonprofit formed to advocate for and rehome at-risk horses. As of today, the NTWO has rehomed 250 at-risk horses. The non-profit was run by Keith and focused its work in Louisiana, a state known for slaughtering horses, and helped pull many horses out of the pipeline.

“I’m not sure whether running his racing business in an ethical way would count with others, but I think it should, especially in a business where people can get greedy. He was like a second beloved father to me, and he’ll be missed,” Keith said. 

Porter was diagnosed with Waldenstroms, a slow-growing type of lymphoma, in 2001 and in the years since he waged war against the disease. He passed away at Christiana Hospital on June 8, and is survived by his wife of 59 years, Betsy, his three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The funeral, which is set for June 9, will be private.

This story will be updated.

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