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.”

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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.”

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.

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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.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.