Bullet Train presents Derby Dreams: Normandy Invasion
The words ‘Normandy Invasion' evoke powerful images of that heroic, harrowing day in June, 1944, when soldiers of the Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France.
Normandy Invasion is also the name of a powerful, athletic 3-year-old colt whose connections hope for an “invasion” of another type in Louisville the first Saturday in May.
Normandy Invasion began life as many foals do, in the Bluegrass of Kentucky. Normandy Invasion was bred by the partnership of Betz, Kidder, Gainesway Farm, Graves, D.J. Stable, and Cole and raised at Betz Thoroughbreds. Bill Betz has been involved in the Thoroughbred breeding business for several years, and was a co-breeder of 2009 Derby winner, Mine That Bird.
A son of the top sire, Tapit, Normandy Invasion is out of the Boston Harbor mare, Boston Lady. A May foal, Betz described him as a “small foal, a little immature, but still very correct.” As he grew, he developed into a well-balanced, athletic individual, even though he was still slightly on the small side.
As a yearling, he was entered in the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, but RNA'd for $145,000. He was then sent to Eddie Woods in Florida for his early training, with an eye towards selling him as a 2-year-old. That plan reaped dividends when a more mature, well-developed colt entered the ring at the 2012 Keeneland April 2-year-old sale. This time there was no buy-back, and the future Normandy Invasion sold for $230,000.
Going into the April sale that year, Rick Porter and his advisor, Tom McGreevy, had their selections narrowed down to four or five horses. Among those high on their list was the Tapit – Boston Lady colt, who had been turning heads during the breeze shows leading up to the sale. Porter and McGreevy were impressed by the colt's pedigree and athleticism. Even though he “didn't vet out at 100%,” Porter decided that they would try and buy colt, with the price limit being $300,000. The hammer fell at $230,000, and Normandy Invasion went home to Fox Hill Farm.
Porter's Fox Hill Farm has been involved in horse racing since 1994. Recent successes include 2011 Horse of the Year and champion older mare, Havre de Grace, and 2009 champion sprinter Kodiak Kowboy.
Since 1997, Porter has run four horses in the Kentucky Derby and has finished second on two occasions – 2007 with Hard Spun and 2008 with the ill-fated Eight Belles. The farm's other two starters in the race – Shammy Davis (1997) and Friesian Fire (2009), finished out of the money.
“Shammy Davis was a decent colt, but he shouldn't have been in the Derby,” Porter reflected. “I had only been in racing for a couple of years at that point and was somewhat easily convinced we should run. We were overmatched. After that, I decided that we'd only return if we had a legitimate contender.”
That philosophy has paid off with the two runner-up finishes, and even though Friesian Fire did not finish in the top three, he was sent off the post-time favorite in the race.
“We've been fortunate to run second twice,” Porter said. “We're only going to run if we have a good chance of winning.”
Porter's philosophy is shared by trainer Chad Brown. The 35-year-old New York native took out his license in late 2007, after spending five years as an understudy to the late Bobby Frankel. While working for the Hall of Fame conditioner, Brown oversaw the trainer's divisions in Kentucky, at Gulfstream Park, and at Monmouth Park. A few of the talented horses Brown worked with included Ghostzapper, Ginger Punch, and Empire Maker.
Even though Brown has been only been on his own for four years, he has already conditioned two Eclipse Award winners – Stacelita (2011) and Zagora (2012). Both were named champion turf mare in their respective years. Brown has also saddled two Breeders' Cup winners – Zagora, who won the 2012 Filly & Mare Turf, and Maram, who captured the 2008 Juvenile Fillies Turf.
Although he did oversee some of Empire Maker's day-to-day training, Brown was not with Frankel and the colt while they were at Churchill Downs preparing for the 2003 Kentucky Derby. So navigating Normandy Invasion's journey on the Triple Crown trail is a new experience for the trainer, and not one he takes lightly.
“If we're in the race, I expect to win,” Brown said.
Normandy Invasion indicated early that he had ability, although Brown didn't rush him. As a result, Normandy Invasion didn't make his first start until September, finishing fifth in a six-furlong maiden race at Belmont Park. The colt was stretched out to a mile in his next start and promptly won, cruising to victory by 9 1/4 lengths.
That prompted Brown and Porter to move the colt into stakes company for his next start. Normandy Invasion did not disappoint, coming up just a nose short of winning the G2 Remsen Stakes last November.
Normandy Invasion has made one start so far this year, going to the post as the favorite in the G2 Risen Star Stakes Feb. 23. Unfortunately, the race didn't go as planned. “Normandy” was caught flat-footed at the start and stumbled slightly a few strides out of the gate. That left the colt well behind the early leaders with too much to do. Normandy Invasion did close well to finish fifth, only beaten 1 1/2 lengths.
With the new points system in place this year for the Kentucky Derby, the fifth-place finish didn't earn the colt any qualifying points. Brown and Porter are now pointing Normandy Invasion to the G1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct April 6. A victory in the race would give connections 100 points, and likely assure them of a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. A second-place finish would earn them 40 points, which may or may not be enough to get in.
While admitting that it would be “exciting to have a horse in the Derby,” Brown emphasized that Normandy Invasion, or any colt in his barn, would have to prove he deserved to be in the Derby field before making the trip to Louisville.