Sweet Tea Carrying on the Fox Hill Farms Legacy

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

Contact: Jennifer Hoyt, jhoyt@oaklawn.com or (501) 363-4305

Friday, February 11, 2022

Photo credit: Coady Photography

Sweet Tea Carrying on the Fox Hill Farms Legacy

Oaklawn’s final race in January carried added significance because it featured the final horse solely owned by famed Fox Hill Farms of the late Rick Porter.

And Sweet Tea, like so many Fox Hill runners the last two decades in Hot Springs, delivered in the maiden special weights sprint for fillies and mares, flashing across the finish line first under Luis Quinonez.

Sweet Tea races for Porter’s widow, Betsy, following his death June 6 from a recurrence of cancer. The bow-tied Delaware automobile dealer was 80.

“He has some family, but it was never in the plans for anyone in the family to continue on with Fox Hill,” said Rick Porter’s longtime executive assistant, Victoria Keith. “She is the last solo one. In talking to Betsy, of course, it was brought up that we certainly wished Rick was there to see her win.”

A North Carolina native, Keith named most of Fox Hill’s horses in 17 years as vice president. She said sweet tea, a southern staple, is one of her favorite drinks and believed the name was appropriate for the 4-year-old daughter of super sire Into Mischief.

“It was a name I thought of and Rick loved it, too,” Keith said, adding Porter always had final approval. “He thought it was really cute for a filly. And we both like sweet tea.”

Sweet Tea is among only three horses Fox Hill still owns. Sweet Tea and Salute the Flag, a 4-year-old Curlin filly, are at Oaklawn with trainer Larry Jones after both horses were withdrawn from Keeneland’s November Breeding Stock Sale. Royal Ship is a Grade 2 winner for Southern California-based Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. Fox Hill owns Salute the Flag and Royal Ship in partnership with Siena Farm (Anthony Manganaro). Siena Farm bred Salute the Flag.

Porter launched Fox Hill in 1994 and kept 25 to 30 horses in training during peak years, Keith said, with its reach stretching from coast to coast.

Eclipse Award winners Havre de Grace and Songbird, Breeders’ Cup Distaff champion Round Pond, Grade 1 winners Hard Spun, Omaha Beach, Joyful Victory and Jostle and Eight Belles, second against males in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, are among the most prominent horses to carry Fox Hill’s familiar red and white silks. Havre de Grace, in 2011, became the third consecutive female to be crowned Horse of the Year.

“If you look at Fox Hill Farms’ numbers on how many horses they’ve had versus what they have done in the business, it’s at the top of the game,” said Jones, who began training for Fox Hill in 2006. “Mr. Porter was very blessed. He put a lot of time and effort and research in it and it paid off. They did a good job.”

Porter was already downsizing his racing operation because of his illness. Following his death, Keith said one Fox Hill horse was claimed, a couple were sold privately and a few others were retired and re-homed. Among eight remaining horses, seven, including Sweet Tea, were entered in November breeding stock sales conducted by industry giants Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton.

On the recommendation of noted bloodstock agent Donato Lanni, Fox Hill purchased Sweet Tea for $300,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Sweet Tea, still unraced, had been with Mandella in Southern California earlier in 2021.

“Richard had liked her a bit, but we had a lot of issues with this crop of horses,” Keith said. “We had a lot of just wanting to buck, things like that, and so we had to back off of them a lot with their shin issues.”

Keith said Sweet Tea never got far along in her training with Mandella. Following Porter’s death, Sweet Tea and four other Fox Hill horses – unraced Salute the Flag, Wings of an Angel and Battle of Berlin and Magic Man – were entered in Keeneland’s breeding stock sale. Two Fox Hill stakes winners, Jolie Olimpica and Windmill, were entered in Fasig-Tipton’s sale.

“The only one never entered was Royal Ship because he’s a gelding and he had gone off the track after a very lackluster race,” Keith said. “So, we didn’t feel like putting him through the sale would garner what we hoped he would be worth if he stayed in training.”

Keith said Sweet Tea was vanned to Kentucky to prep for the sale because Tex Sutton, the country’s leading equine air transport carrier, remained grounded because of contract issues.

“It was actually Richard’s idea to go ahead and ship them down here early because we were taking a van ride,” Keith said. “Basically, the only way to get them here was to go ahead and bring them down early so that they would be in good shape for the sale and then Larry would tinker with them, train them up to the sale.”

After tinkering roughly a month with Sweet Tea and Salute the Flag, Jones said he believed both could be “pretty nice” and recommended to Keith that Fox Hill retain them. Keith said Porter wasn’t big on partnerships, but a friendship with Manganaro had led to the connection with Siena Farm.

“We sort of decided we were going to keep two partnership horses,” Keith said. “And this one (Sweet Tea), with Larry liking her, we didn’t believe that she would go through the sale and bring as much as our opinion of her was. We decided to keep her and run her for Fox Hill … crossed our fingers that Larry was correct.”

Sweet Tea, as the favorite, finished sixth in her Nov. 26 career debut at Churchill Downs after breaking a step slow. Favored again in her 4-year-old debut, Sweet Tea ($5.40) led at every point of call in her one-length victory Jan. 30 at Oaklawn. Both races were 6 furlongs.

“I think she wants to be more of a sprinter,” Jones said. “We thought she would win easy at Churchill the first time we ran her.”

With Fox Hill’s numbers dwindling, Sweet Tea is only its third solely owned winner since Porter’s death. Jolie Olimpica captured the $175,000 Nassau Stakes (G2) for older fillies and mares July 24 at Woodbine. She sold for $675,000 in November. Windmill was a Sept. 23 allowance winner at Churchill Downs. Windmill sold for $600,000 in November.

“I’m still working with them (Fox Hill), as long as we’ve still got some horses,” Keith said. “But clearly with only three now, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands.”

Sweet Tea represented Fox Hill’s 36th Oaklawn victory. It has four more in partnership, notably 2008 allowance winner Kodiak Kowboy, who captured an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion sprinter the following year.

Jones, who met Porter through one of his former trainers, John Servis, has trained the bulk of Fox Hill’s solely owned Oaklawn winners (22). Servis trained the first nine, starting with Pilfer in 2004. Servis brought Jostle, among Fox Hill’s first nationally prominent horses, to Oaklawn for the $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders’ Cup Stakes (G3) for fillies and mares in 2001.

More followed.

Round Pond, then with Servis, accounted for Fox Hill’s first three Oaklawn stakes victories, including the $75,000 Honeybee and $250,000 Fantasy (G2) for 3-year-old fillies in 2005. Havre de Grace began her 2011 Horse of the Year campaign for Jones and Fox Hill with victories in the $150,000 Azeri Stakes (G3) and $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares.

Omaha Beach, a Mandella trainee, won the second division of the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds in 2019 before returning to win the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) and secure program favoritism for the Kentucky Derby. Hard Spun isn’t an Oaklawn stakes winner, but he finished fourth in its $250,000 Southwest – a major Arkansas Derby prep – in 2007 before running second in the Kentucky Derby.

The following year, Eight Belles produced one of the most electrifying performances in Oaklawn history with a 13 ½-length victory in the second division of the $50,000 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. She added victories in the Honeybee and Fantasy before finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.

Fox Hill has 16 stakes victories at Oaklawn, the latest coming with Windmill in the $150,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old filly sprinters last February. In addition to Havre de Grace, Jones trained Hard Spun, Eight Belles and Windmill.

“It was really good,” Jones said of his run with Fox Hill.

Illustrating the quality Fox Hill has unleashed at Oaklawn, 35 of its 36 solely owned winners have come in stakes, allowance or maiden special weights company.

“Oh, he loved Oaklawn,” Keith said, referring to Porter.

Jones already had one victory at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting with a former Fox Hill horse, Wings of an Angel, a 4-year-old Quality Road filly who won her Jan. 7 career debut. Fox Hill purchased Wings of an Angel for $350,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale (Lanni and Jones both compiled short lists for Porter, Keith said) and sold her for $125,000 in November.

Wings of an Angel, who now races for prominent owners Frederick Hertrich III and John D. Fielding, is entered in Saturday’s ninth race, an entry-level allowance sprint for older females. Jones said he “definitely” intends to run Sweet Tea again before the Oaklawn meeting ends May 8.

“Hopefully, her and Wings of an Angel, since they’ve kind of gotten staggered, hopefully, Wings of an Angel can keep moving through her conditions and leave room for her,” Jones said. “Hopefully, they don’t have to run against each other.”

Salute the Flag is entered in Sunday’s first race, which will mark her two-turn debut.

Finish Lines

First post Saturday is 12:10 p.m. (Central). … Secret Oath returned to the work tab Thursday morning, covering a half-mile in :49.40 for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who is pointing the daughter of champion Arrogate to the $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies Feb. 26. Secret Oath has won her two starts at the meet, including the $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes Jan. 29, by a combined 15 ½ lengths. … Arkansas-bred standout The Mary Rose worked a half-mile in :51.20 Thursday morning. Trainer John Ortiz said the major spring objective for The Mary Rose is tackling state-bred males again in the $200,000 Arkansas Breeders’ Championship at 1 1/16 miles May 7. She finished third in last year’s running. … Nominations closed Friday for the Honeybee and the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds Feb. 26. Both 1 1/16-mile races are major preps for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. respectively.