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Las Vegan hopes to join Epicenter in Kentucky Derby winner’s circle

Updated May 4, 2022 - 5:07 pm

Ron Winchell and his family have run 12 horses in the Kentucky Derby and come away with only doughnuts, but the Las Vegas businessman has high hopes that the family’s “70-year quest” to win America’s most famous horse race is about to end.

Winchell co-owns Epicenter, the 7-2 second choice on the morning line for Saturday’s 148th Run for the Roses, with his mother, Joan, also a Las Vegas resident.

Epicenter, a son of the inauspiciously named Not This Time, probably would have been favored had he not drawn what is generally considered a disadvantageous inside post position, No. 3. But Winchell said Tuesday that he and the colt’s trainer, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, think the colt has what it takes to handle the added pressure.

“He’s just in a great position physically and mentally to hopefully get the job done,” Winchell said on a conference call.

Winchell, who has lived in Las Vegas since the family moved from Southern California in 1984, said his grandfather lit the match that led the family into horse racing by taking his son, Verne, to racetracks in the Bloomington, Illinois, area as a young boy. Verne’s interest was cemented when the family attended the 1930 Kentucky Derby on a stopover as they were moving to California.

“I think that’s where he first got the horse bug, if you will,” said Ron, 50. “And then later in life, when he started working, he always thought, ‘Well, if I ever got enough money, I’d want to own racehorses.’”

That opportunity came after Verne Winchell founded Winchell’s Donut House in Southern California in 1948. He later took the company public before selling it in 1968 to Denny’s restaurants, where he later served as CEO and chairman of the board.

As his doughnut empire was rising, Verne began buying and then breeding racehorses. Among the horses that raced under the Winchell silks were such top runners as Mira Femme, Tight Spot, Olympio, Sea Cadet and Fleet Renee.

While the elder Winchell experienced considerable success at the racetrack, particularly in California, the Kentucky Derby eluded him. He sent four runners he either owned outright or in partnerships to compete at Churchill Downs, but the best he managed was a fourth-place finish with Classic Go Go in 1981.

Ron, who inherited his father’s business acumen and developed the Winchell’s Pub & Grill chain while also investing in real estate and purchasing the Kentucky Downs racetrack in Franklin, took over the reins of the racing operation after Verne’s death in 2002.

Now known as Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC, the racing operation based at the Winchells’ 320-acre Corinthia Farm near Lexington, Kentucky, has flourished under his watch. Among the top horses either bred or purchased by the Winchells since 2001 are 2004 Wood Memorial winner Tapit, now one of the world’s leading stallions; 2005 Kentucky Oaks winner Summerly; 2012 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Tapizar; five-time graded stakes winner Untapable; and 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner.

Gun Runner, who gave Ron Winchell his best Derby finish with a third in 2016, also is off to a strong start as a stallion. He was the top sire of 2-year-olds by earnings last year in his first year at stud and produced two of this year’s Kentucky Derby entrants — Cyberknife and Taiba — as well as the Winchell-owned Echo Zulu, the third choice in the Kentucky Oaks at 7-2. The undefeated filly, owned by Winchell in partnership with L and N Racing, could help Winchell and Asmussen achieve an even rarer feat than a Derby win: a sweep of the Oaks and Derby in the same year.

Along with their success on the racetrack, Tapit and Gun Runner, who respectively stand for $185,000 and $125,000 per mating, have produced a steady income stream that keeps the racing operation in the black, Winchell said.

“I’m probably one of the rare people that actually make money in the business,” he said with a broad smile. “… If you just go out and raise horses, it’s a very up-and-down business model, because one year you might have a horse who’s really successful and then usually you have a couple years where it dries out and you don’t and you’re burning a lot of money every month. But when you have a good successful stallion, you have a steady flow of income, and that’s basically what I built my operation around.”

With the racing operation on sound financial footing, Winchell and Asmussen are sharply focused on filling a gap on their resumes: a Kentucky Derby victory. Winchell has had eight Derby runners, all with Asmussen, the winningest North American thoroughbred trainer of all time with 9,727 victories but 0-for-23 in the Derby.

Asmussen, whose family has been connected with the Winchells since Verne began sending babies to their training center in Laredo, Texas, in the 1980s, was instrumental in picking Epicenter out of the 2020 Keeneland September sale, where he went for $260,00, according to Winchell.

Asmussen, 56, said that seeing the horse on the track caught his attention.

“What made Epicenter stand out a little bit was how he moved, even in slow gear,” he said. “He’s best described as a slinky. He’s just extremely fluid and a great mover.”

Asmussen also said he thinks Epicenter gives the team the best chance of wearing the roses of all the horses he’s saddled, including the great Curlin, third in the 2007 Derby for different ownership, and Gun Runner.

“I think the difference with Epicenter is he’s going faster sooner than they were,” he said.

That’s why Winchell remains confident in his colt despite the tough starting position, though he knows there are no givens in a race like the Derby.

“We’ve both been here many times, and we’re both here to win it,” Winchell said. “After losing so many times, you just really want to get it done.”

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