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'If he's as lucky as us, he'll win'

Saturday, May 04, 2013 - Updated: 3:31 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- 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.

"If he's as lucky as the rest of us," said 90-year-old Ray Woods, with a nod toward his friends, "he'll win."

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.

"I wish," he said finally, "I could have brought 40 of 'em."

------

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.

"Carnage, that's what I remember first. Then elation that we could at least provide some help," said Woods, a Navy man who was aboard the USS O'Brien, the first destroyer to reach water's edge.

"Saved my fanny," Bill Wilch, 89, an infantryman then and fellow Ohioan now, cut him off. "We were all young and gung-ho. We never knew what we were getting into."

"We were pinned down for what felt like forever," added J.J. Witmeyer Jr., the second infantryman.

A marksman's badge was pinned above the breast pocket of a natty tan sport jacket. Ten ribbons hung just below it.

"When we finally decided to try and move, everything above here," Witmeyer said, holding his left hand, palm down, at knee level, "was covered in fog."

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.

"Some honor," Reeves laughed.

------

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.

"I've been in an assisted living home in Ohio," Wilch said. "I play pinochle with a bunch of guys who used to be in the horse racing business. ... I've never been this close to a racehorse before. He's beautiful."

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.

"Just before the invasion was set to start, he called everybody together, looked around the room and just said, 'Let's go.' When your horse gets to the head of the stretch," he continued, "have the jockey whisper that in his ear."

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.

"I read somewhere 1,300 of us are dying every month," Wilch said.

"Well I read there were something like a million left," Wood said.

"Don't believe it," Wilch told reporters crowded around the two. "Him and me are the only ones I know."

------

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.

"We throw the word 'heroes' around a lot these days," he said. "But you don't often run across guys who deserve it the way these men do."

Reeves threw the compliment back.

"I can't tell you how much we appreciate all this," he said with a sweep of his arm.

Two seats over, Wilch nodded in agreement.

"Me and my wife watched the Kentucky Derby for years. She always wanted to come," he said.

Then Wilch tapped the breast pocket of his jacket, where a photo of Mary Rita sat.

"And now," he said, "she will."

     

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