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Las Vegas’ Winchell hoping to put behind him Derby heartbreak

Updated May 20, 2022 - 11:04 am

Las Vegas businessman Ron Winchell says he may never get over the “tough beat” his 3-year-old colt Epicenter endured two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby, but a victory in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes would ease the sting from that narrow loss to the longest shot in the field.

“(Epicenter) showed up, he was running and at the end it was heartbreaking to get run down at the wire,” Winchell said Thursday on a conference call with turf writers, his first public comments since the shocking Derby victory by Rich Strike at 80-1 odds. “… I had to sit for about five minutes to kind of absorb it.”

The 50-year-old Winchell, a real estate investor who developed the Winchell’s Pub Grill chain, acknowledged that the storybook ending to the race captured the public’s imagination, but said that didn’t lessen the pain of having his family’s “70-year quest” for a Derby victory snatched from his grasp.

“It wasn’t a feel-good story for me, but (it was) for the rest of the world,” he said.

Tough losses and other setbacks are par for the course in horse racing, so Winchell and trainer Steve Asmussen quickly set a new goal for Epicenter, plotting out a course that they hope will lead to a 3-year-old championship at year’s end.

The first step calls for the son of Not This Time, who was purchased at auction by Winchell for $260,000 as a yearling, to atone for his runner-up finish in the Derby with a victory in the 147 th Preakness Stakes, which carries a purse worth $1.5 million.

The colt is expected to face eight rivals in the 13/16-mile middle jewel in the Triple Crown at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, including fellow Derby runners Simplification (fourth in the Derby) and Happy Jack (14th ), the D. Wayne Lukas-trained filly Secret Oath and the fresh and fast Early Voting.

Epicenter, installed as the 6-5 favorite, will not have an opportunity to turn the tables on Rich Strike, since the connections of the Derby winner opted to skip the Preakness and await the Belmont Stakes on June 11.

Winchell said he and Asmussen won’t decide whether Epicenter will compete in that race until after the Preakness.

Winchell said that the Derby holds a special place in his heart, but he would be delighted to hoist the ornate silver Woodlawn Vase after the Preakness, especially since he and his father are collectively 0-for-15 so far in the series for 3-year-olds.

“These Triple Crown races are difficult and highly coveted,” he said.

Winchell and Asmussen, who has two Preakness wins to his credit, remain highly confident in Epicenter given his strong performance in the Derby, when he grabbed the lead in the upper stretch after tracking a torrid early pace, then fended off Zandon through the stretch only to be passed by Rich Strike in the final strides.

“The confidence level is great, but with any big race you just hope you show up and run,” he said. “If he does, I think we’re in a good position.”

On paper the main challengers to Epicenter appear to be Early Voting, Simplification and Secret Oath, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks who will be attempting to become the seventh filly to win the Preakness.

Early Voting appears likely to set the pace, though the lightly raced son of Winchell’s stallion Gun Runner could have company from the recent West Coast allowance winner Armagnac, who was conditioned by suspended trainer Bob Baffert before being transferred to Tim Yakteen.

Winchell said Epicenter is likely to race off the pace again as he did in the Derby, but noted that the colt’s versatility gives jockey Joel Rosario options if the pace is slower than expected.

If a stalking trip materializes, Epicenter will likely try to grab the lead turning for home as he did in the Derby and then kick clear for the stretch run.

But the lightly raced Early Voting may have something to say about that, since trainer Chad Brown has given him a six-week break following his neck loss to Mo Donegal in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9. Brown used the same path to engineer Cloud Computing’s Preakness victory in 2017.

If those two engage in a stretch duel similar to what unfolded in the Derby, Simplification and Secret Oath would be the most likely beneficiaries, with recent sharp allowance winner Creative Minister (whose lineage traces back to Winchell’s influential stallion Tapit) also in the mix.

Warm weather also could factor in the outcome, with a high of 93 degrees forecast and a 20 percent chance of showers after 2 p.m.

From my vantage point, it looks like a dogfight is likely between Early Voting and Epicenter through the stretch, with the latter getting up to win by a neck.

Whatever the outcome, Winchell isn’t going to be satisfied as long as his Derby dreams remain unfulfilled. He said he and his team are already making preparations for another trip to the Keeneland yearling auction in September in hopes of finding another runner capable of making it happen.

“Where we’ll really motivated now is with finding the next Derby winner,” he said. “We’re probably a little more invigorated now (after the near miss) … to go find that needle in a haystack.”

Contact Mike Brunker at mike.brunker@outlook.com.

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