Kentucky Derby Contender Epicenter: Descended from Donuts and the American Dream

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Here we have a horse from another time, another place, another snack food. (Another snack food? Yes, another snack food). Here we have a Kentucky Derby contender who emerges not from the desperate winter sweats of Derby Fever, not from the thick bankrolls of mercenary syndicates, not from the sudden serendipity of blessed rookies, with their shallow roots and wide-eyed good fortune. Here we have a horse named Epicenter, whose dominant victory in the Louisiana Derby prep race in late March will put him among the favorites on Saturday evening, and whose presence in the race rides on the long tail of the Winchell family’s seven-decade (and probably unverifiably longer) immersion in the sport, passed from grandfather to father, and from father to son (and husband to wife). Whose story could be told in a black-and-white newsreel.

Every Derby horse has a timeline – the reverse-engineered explanation of how one horse among thousands arrived in this place (the most famous and influential horse race in America) at this time (the first Saturday in May 2022, the tiniest of bull’s-eyes), against reason, common sense and laughably long odds. A story of genius or luck, or both. Epicenter’s is a story of patient endurance across generations. “A 70-year contract,” says Epicenter’s 50-year-old owner, Ron Winchell, in whose hands this enduring family business – Winchell Thoroughbreds – currently rests. It is also, not inconsequentially, the story of 20th century America, of depression families, of westward migration, entrepreneurship and the American Dream as once constructed. And the pursuit of victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Related: What to know about the 2022 Kentucky Derby

Also donuts. Definitely donuts. Because without the donuts, there is no dream, no Derby. No Epicenter. There is none of it.

In 1930, Vernon Hedges Winchell, then in his early 40s, left his wife and three children at the family’s home in Bloomington, Illinois, and drove west in a Model-T Ford. It was the beginning of the depression, and like millions of Americans, Winchell was in search of opportunity, and a better life. He had been a mail carrier in Bloomington, among other jobs. And he had liked to bet on the horses, especially longshots (hold that thought). He settled in Alhambra, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, in the San Gabriel Valley, and sent for his family – his wife, two sons, and two daughters — who made the trip west by train.

One of the boys was 15-year-old Verne. He enrolled in Alhambra High School and set up a shoeshine stand on a corner in the city, an early business venture. He also joined his father on afternoon visits to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, shimmering racetracks that opened in the 30s, and where they watched Seabiscuit run and Hollywood celebrities bask. In the late 30s, father and son once drove to Kentucky to watch and bet races at Churchill Downs and Keeneland. Still betting longshots, only together now. (Keep holding that thought).

Young Verne attended Pasadena City College for a time, and then took a job at the new General Motors manufacturing plant in South Gate, south of the city center, near Downey and Compton. It was hard work, and Verne concluded what many other young people have concluded while laboring early in tough jobs: He did not want that job to become his life. So he walked away from it, much to his father’s consternation, and tried selling cars, and then jukeboxes, with uneven success.

In 1948, at the age of 33, Verne scraped together $27,000 and bought a piece of commercial real estate in Temple City, two towns over from Alhambra, with the intention of opening a restaurant. According to a 1960 story in The Los Angeles Times, a friend convinced Winchell to sell donuts instead of dinners. Today, donuts are ubiquitous in America, and distinctly so in Southern California; in 1948 they were a nascent industry. Krispy Kreme had been founded in 1937 and was growing across the South. Dunkin Donuts wouldn’t open until 1950, and the popular Canadian chain Tim Horton’s did not open until 1964. The specialty donut explosion was decades away. Winchell’s Donut Shops initially staggered out of the gate – “The first shop did every well,” Verne told the Times, “So I opened a couple more. They didn’t do so well.”

Related: Kentucky Derby 2022 post positions, odds announced

Eventually they did very well, expanding to hundreds of locations in California and beyond, with the lure of “Hot – read: fresh — Donuts” and windows where customers could watch them being made. By the mid-1970s, Winchell’s annual sales approached $100 million. The power of the Winchell’s brand from the 1950s into the 1970s was captured in director Alice Gu’s acclaimed 2020 documentary, The Donut King, in which the eponymous protagonist, Cambodian emigree and donut impresario Ted Ngoy explained that his career – and a path to vast wealth — started by enrolling in Winchell’s’ three-month training program. “Winchell’s training program lasts for three months,” said Ngoy in the movie. “I learned a new skill, to be a baker, and to run a donut shop.” Ngoy took his Winchell’s training and opened more than 50 independent shops, mostly with Cambodian ownership, creating a thriving and important subculture that stands to this day.

(Ngoy also took Verne Winchell’s nickname, Donut King, or was granted it by the filmmakers; Winchell had been called the Donut King, colloquially, in the 50s and 60s, and gave his first near-Derby horse the same name. None of this would have surprised Verne. According to Ron: “My father always said, “We trained our competition’”).

In all of this, there were the horses, on a path of deepening commitment that paralleled Verne’s business success. In the 1950s he transitioned from bettor to buying low-level claiming horses, and then on up the traditional ladder of horse ownership. “He was bitten by the horse bug early on,” says David Fiske, 69, who has been the Winchell Farm Manager since 1980. “When he got the wherewithal, he started to dabble in ownership and it just kept growing from there.”

In 1960, Verne bought a yearling out of 1954 Kentucky Derby winner Determine and named him Donut King. A year later Donut King, trained by Ron McAnally, won the Champagne Stakes, a major East Coast 2-year-old race contested at Belmont Park; in the spring of ’62 Donut King arrived at Churchill Downs as one of the favorites for that year’s Kentucky, but was scratched on the day before the race with a hoof infection, possibly caused by stepping on a piece of glass in his stall. Verne could not have known then that would never get closer to winning the Derby than on that morning.

His business exploded and in 1968 merged with the Denny’s restaurant chain; Verne became CEO of the new company and meticulously oversaw a period of growth and success for Denny’s. From a 1976 feature story in The Los Angeles Times: “A rival food industry executive likens Winchell to the student who works twice as hard as his classmates to achieve the same grade. ‘Verne takes a go-slow, fundamentalist approach to things. He’s a bit of a plodder. But you can’t fault his decisions. Just look at Denny’s record.” Most notably, Denny’s revenues tripled in six years. (Verne also took his frugal approach outside the boardroom: McAnally once told the Daily Racing Form, “People might have thought him a little on the frugal side, but this is the kind of guy he was. When we’d go for coffee and doughnuts in the track kitchen, I’d have to buy. But if I told him about a horse he should get, he’d write the check right there. He always did the thing that made sense.”

Related: Recipes for traditional Kentucky Derby foods

Verne ran Denny’s until 1984, when he retired from active business and cashed out his Denny’s stock for a reported $600 million, which is fundamentally his return on that $27,000 purchase of his first donut shop 36 years earlier. (Winchell’s Donuts has since been sold at least twice, contracted, and now is owned by Yum-Yum Donuts, which operates 170 shops under the Winchell’s brand name). As Verne’s career prospered, his horse business grew to include a thriving stable of runners, and a farm in Kentucky, the ultimate in what Fiske called “wherewithal.” He got to the Derby three more times, finishing fourth with Classic Go Go in 1981, 14th with Momentus in 1987, and 13th with Valiant Nature in 1994.

He had four children from two marriages, two daughters and two sons. One of them took the baton, in concert with Verne’s second wife.

On a Saturday morning in late April, Ron Winchell is at the 320-acre family farm in Kentucky, bought by his father as Oakwind Farm, but since recast as Corinthia Farm, its original name. Winchell lives and runs his primary business – 32 gaming operations, plus Kentucky Downs racetrack – from Las Vegas, but visited Kentucky to watch Epicenter work for trainer Steve Asmussen in preparation for the Derby. Offered congratulations on reaching the Derby with a live runner, Winchell pulled back: “You’re not in the Derby until you’re in the starting gate,” he said in a phone interview, a callback to Donut King in 1962, and very much in line with any owner’s Derby superstitions.

He recalls a childhood interconnected with his father’s sprawling business. “One thing about my dad, he would take my sister and I everywhere with him,” says Ron. “We went around the world with him opening locations, some Winchell’s but mostly Denny’s at that time. We went to Japan, South Africa. And every summer we would drive from California to Kentucky and we would stop at every Denny’s along the way and my father would have us write up reports on the restaurant.” Likewise, Verne had a vivid memory of the planning for almost every donut shop. “We would drive past a Winchell’s,” says Ron, “And my father would say something like, “I remember that location. There was a power pole in front, so we almost didn’t buy it. So many stories like that.”

And the horses. Like Verne followed his father to the track, Ron followed Verne as an adolescent, and into his teenage years, and in his early 20s was involved in discussions about purchases. (Likewise, when Ron started his gaming business in 1999, his father would seek updates and offer gentle suggestions). In October of 2002, father and son sat together at the Keenland yearling sale, bidding on a grey colt named Tapit. When the bidding reached $600,000, Ron suggested that it was time to get out. Verne nodded and then bid again, and got Tapit for $625,000. “Totally overrode me,” says Ron.

Related: 2022 Triple Crown schedule

Verne was gone less than two months later, dead of a heart attack at 87 after his daily workout on a treadmill at home. He never saw Tapit win the 2004 Wood Memorial and go off as the third betting choice in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished ninth, in the slop, behind winner Smarty Jones. He never saw Tapit become one of the most influential – and valuable – stallions in the game, one of the foundations on which Winchell Thoroughbreds has stood. And he didn’t see his wife and son make the decision to carry on his business.

Fiske was in the middle of that. “The way I saw it,” says Fiske, “Ron and his mother (Joan, Verne’s second wife, who is now 79) came to the conclusion that the horses and the farm were an important part of Verne’s life and his legacy, and they wanted to hang onto it.” Ron changed the name from his father’s alone to Winchell Thoroughbreds and Joan offered financial support from Verne’s estate. Donut money.

Ron says: “Once I was in the horse racing business with my father, it was always something I wanted to stay involved with.”

His stewardship has been similar to his father’s Denny’s rescue decades earlier: Measured, steady, largely without swag. And prosperous. Their operation includes approximately 54 horses in training, and also 30 mares, 20 yearlings, and 19 foals; they produce and buy at least a dozen top-level yearlings every year. Winchell’s Gun Runner was the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and voted Horse of the Year. And in the present, not only is Epicenter a Derby threat, three-year-old filly Echo Zulu will be among the favorites in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. But the Kentucky Derby remains a blank line in the Winchell books. There have been seven entries since Tapit, and the best finish was Gun Runner’s third in 2016. It is not a race that rewards repeated efforts.

Generations ago, racing was endemically a family game, passed down, and enduring. It has since become more transactional, a change if not a diminishment. The Winchells are an exception. As another Derby draws nearer, the connection between one father, gone two decades, and his son, becomes more resonant “I’m carrying on his dream, to win the Derby,” says Ron. “It was his dream, now it’s my dream.”

One generation’s quest handed to the next. The line from a single donut shop in California to Churchill Downs, never more clear.

Watch the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 7 from 12 to 2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Full coverage is also available on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.