Winchell Stays the Course With Asmussen

Winchell Stays the Course With Asmussen
Photo: Oaklawn Park
Tapiture winning the Southwest Stakes with Winchell's silks.

Increasingly, in this ever-more invasive society where cameras are everywhere, private people are thrust into the limelight due to circumstance or association.

Breeder/owner Ron Winchell was caught in the switch recently for no other reason than keeping a 25-year association started by his late father, Verne, who in the late 1980s began sending yearlings to Laredo, Texas, to be broken by Keith Asmussen.

Ron Winchell has continued the inter-family partnership by having Keith Asmussen's son, trainer Steve Asmussen, condition his racehorses. So when the infamous PETA video surfaced in March with its highly-edited and inflammatory look at the Asmussen barn, Winchell, who races under the banner Winchell Thoroughbreds, found himself in the spotlight's glare.

The reason? He currently has the best horses in Asmussen's barn. Multiple-graded stakes winner Tapiture is in the first tier of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) contenders, and multiple-graded stakes winner Untapable has been unbeatable this season and will be odds-on in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).

"Yeah, I'm really under the radar now," Winchell said with sarcastic wit a week before the Derby.

For a man who has parlayed his father's success in racing with considerable achievements of his own, this starring role has been neither sought nor comfortable. And having viewed the video, Winchell had decisions to make: Keep his horses with Asmussen or move them elsewhere.

"We had to sort out the details," he said. "My experience with Steve has been completely different than what was portrayed in the video. He has been nothing but candid and straightforward.

"The language in there (coming from former Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi) was shocking and not something you like to hear. But I thought it would be unfair to take the horses out of their routine at this juncture, and we all need to let the investigators do their job and come up with their findings. If those results turn out to be problematic, then I'd have to take a long look at the situation."

Winchell literally grew up in racing. His family has winner's circle photos with his mother, Joan, pregnant while carrying him. And Winchell, who owns half of Tapit  , the hottest stallion on the continent, will not allow the PETA video, which he also called an "attack on racing," to divert him from the accomplishment of having horses talented enough to run in the marquee events at Churchill Downs this week.

"How many people are in the situation of having Oaks and Derby contenders?" Winchell asked. "It's exciting. We've been thinking of this ever since they both won at Churchill Downs last November (Tapiture in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, gr. II, and Untapable in the Pocahontas Stakes, gr. II). Even getting this far has been a challenge."

Winchell, 41, is based in Las Vegas and Southern California. He is a gaming and real estate entrepreneur who manages 16 small gaming sites around Nevada, most of which are called Jackpot Joanie's in honor of his mother, Joan. He inherited his passion for racing from his father, who campaigned stars such as Olympio, Sea Cadet, Fleet Renee, Mira Femme, On Target, and Donut King. The last was named for the elder Winchell, who started the chain of doughnut shops that bore the family name.

Ron Winchell also maintains Corinthia Farm, a 320-acre spread just east of Lexington where two dozen broodmares graze with their foals. It is, like Winchell, private; no boarders.

Most of the farm's help has been with the organization for decades. David Fiske, who has managed the Winchell farm and racing operations for 35 years, said, "We've got this continuity and a dogged determination. We don't chop and change a lot of stuff."

So the decision to stay with Asmussenat least for nowis one based on that philosophy and a long history between the two families. Keith Asmussen still breaks the Winchell horses before they make the racetrack. And while accusations fly in the PETA video, there is little context or proof, not enough for an operation that doesn't like disruption to make radical changes.

"We certainly debated the situation for a couple of days," said Fiske. "But ultimately it wasn't that hard a decision. Nothing in the video resembled any of the experiences we've had with Steve or his operation ever. It was 180 degrees opposite. So we have chosen to wait and see what comes out of the investigations, and so far nothing has turned up."

The stars of the show, both progeny of Tapit, will have their moment in the limelight this weekend.

"They are doing fantastic," Fiske said. "For them, being at Churchill is like being home. Both like it there and have settled in well and they're getting over the track well like they did last fall. They couldn't be happier."

The human connections? Well, clearly they would have preferred not to be included in this controversy, but they are steadfast in their pride for their operation.

"We have a long history of doing the right thing by our horses," Winchell said. "Our retirees are out there at Corinthia living in green fields."

Fiske added, "There was no indication of anything negative from anyone at Oaklawn or Fair Grounds (where Tapiture and Untapable raced after the video came out), so we hope that continues through next weekend. I'm sure there will be some drunk guy on the walkover (who makes comments), but that happens every year." 

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