(Originally published in the December 10, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions
at the bottom of the column.)
When you’re running hot, Plan B works out just as well as Plan A. Owner Ron Winchell was pointing up-and-coming 2-year-old Sabercat to the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) Nov. 5, but hours after being pre-entered the Bluegrass Cat colt colicked and was off his feed for a day. So Winchell and trainer Steve Asmussen called an audible and instead sent the $120,000 Keeneland September sale yearling to the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) Nov. 19.
After Sabercat’s four-length triumph, Winchell’s share of the jackpot was a cool $600,000 in graded stakes earnings, and assured Sabercat of a berth in the 2012 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) should things go smoothly in the interim.
“I’ve been around long enough to know the ones that win are the ones that everything goes perfect for,” said the 39-year-old Winchell. “If you have an incident, it throws the horse out of rhythm.”
Despite his relative youth Winchell has been around the racing game plenty long. He and his dad, California-based Verne Winchell, worked as a team, both passionate about horses. The elder Winchell, who founded the chain of doughnut stores of the same name, raced outstanding runners such as Olympio, Sea Cadet, Fleet Renee, Mira Femme, On Target, Donut King, and, in partnership, turf male champion Tight Spot.
After Verne Winchell’s death in 2002, Ron has picked up the reins and continued with the same successful touch, campaigning graded stakes winners such as Summerly, Cuvee, Pyro, Fun House, Zanjero, War Echo, Tapizar, and probably the hottest stallion in North America today, Tapit. The Winchell breeding operation, in operation since Verne purchased Oakwind Farm in Kentucky in 1979 (now Corinthia Farm), has produced Paddy O’Prado, Amerique, Call Now, Cuvee, Sea Cadet, Fleet Renee, Future Quest, Olympio, Valiant Nature, Wild Wonder, Pyro, Tapizar, and War Echo, among other stakes victors.
Racing as Winchell Thoroughbreds, Ron and his mother, Joan, keep about 15 horses in training and have 20 broodmares at the farm, which is run by David Fiske. Winchell credits Fiske and David Lambert for advising him on his yearling purchases, including Sabercat.
After three mediocre races to kick off his career, Sabercat has come to hand beginning in September, when he broke his maiden going a mile at Monmouth Park and returned a month later to take the Garden State Stakes by six lengths in his last race before the Jackpot triumph.
“He had lost once in the slop and then we tried him once on the grass, so we drew a line through those races,” noted Winchell. “When we sent him two turns at Monmouth, he really lit up and won those races easily. I felt he was sneaky good coming off those races. You don’t get the respect coming out of Monmouth, but he beat a good horse in My Adonis in the maiden race who returned to win a stake at Delta. We knew he loved the two turns, so the Breeders’ Cup was the plan, but it turned out Delta was a good plan too.”
Winchell, who splits time between Southern California and Las Vegas, builds and owns shopping centers and also owns several bar/restaurants in Vegas that feature slot machines.
“The housing market there is still horrid,” said Winchell, “but anything having to do with slot machines is good.”
Something else that is good is owning 50% of Tapit, who has been churning out stakes winners in assembly-line numbers from his base at Gainesway Farm.
“It’s like catching lightning in a bottle; he’s turned out to be quite phenomenal,” allowed Winchell, who campaigned Tapit and saw him win the 2004 Wood Memorial (gr. I). “We’ve bred almost every mare on the farm to him. He’s getting great runners from mares that were going to him on a $12,500 stud fee. We’re looking forward to what happens now that he’s seeing mares that have already had significant winners.”
Among the Winchell mares visiting Tapit are Fun House, the dam of grade I winner Paddy O’Prado; Christmas Star, dam of grade I winner Cuvee; and Wild Vision, who has produced grade I winner Pyro.
In what may be scary news for the competition, Winchell revealed that his most highly regarded 2-year-old has yet to start, and probably won’t until January of his 3-year-old season. That would be a Tapit colt by the name of Hardtap.
“He was supposed to be the best out of that crop, but he’s had a few minor setbacks,” said Winchell, who sends his yearlings to Keith and Marilyn Asmussen’s El Primero Training Center in Texas to be broken.
The plan is for both Sabercat and Hardtap to winter at Santa Anita. Sabercat will be in light training while the hopeful connections plot out a path to get him to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
“They seem to do well coming out of California after the winter,” noted Winchell.
Winchell will be quite happy if this time Plan A works in getting Sabercat to Louisville.