Rick Porter has had to make his share of arduous decisions in his years as a Thoroughbred owner. The one he came to last winter was not one of them.
When his former trainer Larry Jones let Porter know he was coming out of his self-imposed, year-long retirement and would take five of Porter's horses back under his care, it didn't take a lot of hemming and hawing to decide which ones were headed to Jones' shedrow.
"I really think Larry is as good a trainer as there is and when he said he could take five horses, I never thought twice," Porter said. "I picked out my five best horses and that was it. That's how the decision was made."
Included in that bunch was a lovely bay daughter of Saint Liam named Havre de Grace. While she had always been a good performer, there was a sense with the right time and handling, she would be capable of some extraordinary things.
Months later, that sentiment has come to fruition as the 4-year-old filly heads into the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs Nov. 4 and 5 as the leading candidate for Horse of the Year.
And just as Havre de Grace has been able to elevate her already solid foundation to a different level in 2011, the same could be said of the revamped partnership between her colorful owner and trainer.
Had they never come back together on a professional level this season, Jones and Porter were always going to be intrinsically linked thanks to the litany of success they racked up over a short period time and the agonizing tragedy they endured on an all too public stage.
In the few years that transpired since first getting together in 2006, the Jones-Porter combination was responsible for such standouts as Hard Spun, Old Fashioned, and Friesan Fire as well as the brilliant but ill-fated filly Eight Belles, who shattered the hearts of millions when she fatally broke both her ankles while galloping out following her runner-up finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
As quickly as the duo hit the highs and lows, they also appeared to hit the brakes when Jones announced in the fall of 2008 he planned to retire from training by the conclusion of the following year — the result of physical and mental strain that pushed him to his breaking point.
To the surprise of few, Jones' hiatus barely lasted 12 months and when he returned to training full time this season, Porter wanted to come along for the ride again.
Their comeback — campaigning a filly considered to be among the best horses of either sex this year following her victory over males in the Grade I Woodward Stakes on Sept. 3 — is the kind Brett Favre would yearn for. Like Havre de Grace herself, though, both Jones and Porter are certain that — thanks to some tweaks — this current incarnation of their partnership is actually better than its predecessor.
"Rick really has become the perfect owner," Jones said. "I don't feel like my job is on the line every time we go to the races so we can relax and have a good time. When he wanted me to come back, he said 'I had fun when you trained for me.' I told him as long as we're going to have fun, I'm back in."
Actually, it wasn't that simple. In order to get himself and his owners in a position to return to racing's pinnacle — and in a place where he could actually enjoy it — Jones had to defy his people-pleasing nature and put himself first for once.
Mr. Nice Guy
Some things about Jones never change.
No matter their success, he and his wife Cindy still prefer the comforts of a Days Inn over four-star hotels. And even as his stable reaps the same kind of accolades super outfits like Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen enjoy, Jones wouldn't think of abandoning his title as one the sport's most hands-on horsemen.
His devotion to the latter is what caught up to Jones during his peak in 2007 and 2008 when his stable grew to over 100 horses, 38 of which were Porter's. He didn't want to shirk his responsibility to his horses or his clients, but the more he said "yes" to everyone the harder it became to fulfill the requests he was promising.
There may not have been many cross words between Porter and Jones. That doesn't mean there wasn't tension.
"It was a lot of pressure being his only trainer," Jones said. "I think it got misprinted last year when I said Rick was demanding. It really is not Rick, but his program that was demanding because ... I had to be in a lot of different spots at the same time. When I couldn't be in two spots at one time, I was seeing disappointment in faces I didn't like to see."
Even on the days when Jones was theoretically able to please everyone, he couldn't. He could have horses at different tracks win stakes on the same day but ultimately, somebody was going to be disappointed he wasn't with their horse.
"He tried to be Mr. Nice Guy and take time for everybody and you can't do it," said Cindy Jones, who took over the barn's head training duties when Larry retired and promptly made her husband her assistant. "He found out you can say no ... because he does not deserve someone to be unkind to him."
Add to that the emotional strain that came with Eight Belles' death, the firestorm of criticism thrown at him and Porter in the aftermath, and the fact his blood pressure was going off the charts and Jones realized something had to give.
Thus, when he did come back to training this season, it had to be on his terms. Instead of 100-plus horses he had in the past, Jones keeps his stable to around half that now.
"I think if I had 25 horses in his 50-60 horse barn it makes me have too much influence on any one stable," said Porter, who spreads the rest of his horses among trainers Chad Brown, Steve Hobby, and Thomas Iannotti. "I think Larry will take more horses of mine but it will never get to the point where it's more than half his stable.
"It just got completely out of control and things are very much under control now. It makes it easier for Larry and me to enjoy what we do have especially when we have a good horse or two."
There is one horse in particular who is making it easier for everyone around her to have a good time this year.
'The total package'
Soon after Havre de Grace arrived in Jones' barn, he contacted Porter and gave him the heads up on what they might have on their plate for 2011.
"He kept telling me more good things and finally he said, 'I've had a lot of horses and a lot of good ones with you but I can't find a hole in this horse," Porter said. "And I said, 'Well quit looking.'"
As good as Hard Spun was and as much sheer ability as Eight Belles showed, neither Jones nor Porter can say they've had anything like Havre de Grace.
Demure and sweet in her personality, Havre de Grace has developed into what Jones calls the perfect horse. After earning a Grade II victory last season under the guidance of trainer Tony Dutrow — who took over a majority of Porter's horses in Jones' absence — the bay filly has won five of six starts this year including three Grade I triumphs with her only loss being a nose defeat at the hands of rival and champion Blind Luck in the Grade II Delaware Handicap.
Where once she balked at her training duties, Havre de Grace now is nothing short of a professional. She has the tactical ability to either lay close or sit off the pace — a factor that will likely make her among the favorites in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
"She just is the total package," Jones smiled. "No one will ever replace Hard Spun in my heart, but he had these issues to deal with. He wanted to be a front runner so we had to hope we hooked legitimate paces. Havre de Grace will make the race set up to suit her. If there was no speed, I would expect her to be in front. If there is speed, she could come from dead last. It doesn't bother her whatever it is."
When Havre de Grace faced males in the Woodward, both Porter and Jones knew they were going to be reminded repeatedly that week what happened the last time they started a filly against boys.
Though both say they have moved on from the Eight Belles tragedy, she still runs through their minds more often than she ran on the track. Seeing Havre de Grace cross the wire 11/4 lengths in front in the Woodward validated their previous decisions but as far as healing a wound, only time accomplished that.
"I'll never forget her as long as I live and I think about her often," Porter said of Eight Belles. "But I knew I had to put it behind me then or I wasn't going to be able to watch any races, and if I couldn't watch any races I might as well get the hell out of the sport.
"Do I think about it running in the Woodward, running a filly against the colts? Yeah. I held my breath that whole race. Havre de Grace has done a lot for me but I don't think she was instrumental in anything to do with Eight Belles. Eight Belles was a different issue, dealt with in a different way."
Havre de Grace is different and so are Porter and Jones, for the better. They already know what success looks like, the strain it can bring and the ugly times that can come with it. But after everything they've been through, they wouldn't want to have this current experience without the other being part of it.
"The good Lord has just blessed us being together. I mean that with all sincerity because we both truly believe that he wants us together," Jones said. "I think (the time away) helped us get a little appreciation for each other."
Added Porter, "There are a lot of ups and downs in horse racing and Larry just makes me feel good. Whether it's in the morning or if we're watching a claiming race, it doesn't make any difference. He always puts a smile on my face."