LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- On Saturday, well over 150,000 people are expected to descend on Churchill Downs to take part in Kentucky Derby day. Ranging from the common man to the celebrity, the track will be packed to the gills. Among the crowds, though, four men who are neither common nor celebrities will hopefully command extra respect. After all, they are members of the Greatest Generation.
On June 6, 1944, Ray Woods, Bill Wilch and J.J. Witmeyer stormed the beaches of Normandy during one of the most pivotal military operations in World War II. Alan Reeves arrived on the scene later. They will be rooting for a colt bearing the name Normandy Invasion in the Derby as guests of the horse's owner, Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm.
This all started when Reeves called Fox Hill Farm to inquire about the possibility of meeting the colt during Derby week. Those involved with the horse thought it was a brilliant idea and have been working frantically to make the visit a success.
"He gave us a great idea," Porter said. "I also thought this would be fantastic if we could get people that were part of the actual Normandy Invasion on D-Day. We can't take credit for the idea, but it sure was a good one."
At the end of April, Porter and associates took to the Internet to put out word that they were looking for veterans of D-Day to attend the Derby. Emails came in swiftly, and in all they heard from about 40 people who had been part of the invasion or its aftermath. This week, Porter finalized details for four of them to attend the Derby in style.
"It is just fun doing something for somebody that did so much for us," Porter said. "The gentleman from California that gave us the idea wasn't part of D-Day but he did fight in Normandy. He really wanted to come and we made room for him, too."
On Friday morning, the veterans will have a meet and greet with the Derby hopeful who has brought them all to Louisville. They will spend race day in Millionaires Row before joining Porter in his box to watch the Derby.
"I think it is going to work out great," Porter said. "I want them to be comfortable and for the experience to be easy on them. It's going to be great to meet them and see them enjoying what they are doing."
The veterans, who are being flown in from around the country, will be staying in Lexington, about an hour from Louisville, for the weekend. Porter has arranged for a van to transport them to and from Churchill.
"We thought it was easier with all the traffic and confusion in Louisville this week," Porter said. "They are so excited. The companion that emailed us about the gentleman from New Orleans has told me, 'I am not sure if you have taken five years off his life or put five years on it, but I've never seen him this excited in my life.'"
Although in his 90s, Witmeyer plans to attend the Derby in his military uniform. In 2009, he was appointed a member of the French Legion of Honor, France's highest award, for his service in WWII.
Porter has visited Normandy in person. The experience is one that has stayed with him through the years, and it helped lead to organizing this weekend.
"If you are ever anywhere near there, it is a must," Porter said. "It is unbelievable, and it is something you will never forget."
For Normandy Invasion the horse, Saturday's race will not be an easy one. But Porter hopes that being a part of the colt's chance at immortality will bring smiles to the faces of men who sacrificed so much on behalf of their country.
"It's a tough race and a lot of things have to go right to get the trophy, but this isn't about the horse," Porter said. "The horse doesn't need any publicity -- he is in the Kentucky Derby. I just hope the veterans have a good time, everything goes smoothly, and Normandy Invasion runs well and safely."
Considering that according to the Veterans Administration, veterans of WWII are dying at a rate of around 600 per day, hopefully everyone who crosses paths with these heroes Saturday will pause their Derby revelry for a second to give thanks, as well.
At the end of WWII, nearly 16 million veterans returned home to the United States. In 2013, their numbers stand at just more than 1 million. Sooner than we would all like to think about, there will be no one left to give firsthand accounts of what happened.
But, hopefully, these four members of the Greatest Generation will be around for years telling stories, one of which will be about the time they cheered home a colt named Normandy Invasion during the greatest two minutes in sports.