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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.