04/23/2004 12:00AM

Building on his father's success


Most racing fans today were introduced to the great game of horse racing by either friends or family. My dad took me to the races when I was young. The rest is personal history.

Horse owner Ronald Winchell, likewise, was introduced to racing by his dad, although you might say he was first exposed to the racing scene by his mother, Joan. She accompanied his father, Verne, to the winner's circle while pregnant with Ronald.

Verne Winchell, who died in 2002, owned racehorses. He started back in the halcyon days of Southern California racing, in the 1960's. A self-made success as the founder of Winchell's Donuts and then later CEO of the Denny's restaurant chains, Verne Winchell purchased his first racehorse in 1958, and his first big horse was Donut King, whom he bought at auction in 1960. Named after his owner, Donut King won the 1961 Champagne at Belmont Park and was on his way to a 1962 Kentucky Derby start when he was scratched because of an injury.

Ron Winchell, a 32-year-old Las Vegas resident, is taking his first shot at the Derby with Tapit, the Wood Memorial winner who will be one of the favorites on Saturday.

Winchell has seen the famous maroon-and-white family silks carried twice in the Kentucky Derby. VHW Stables had Classic Go Go finish fourth in 1981 and a tough-trip Valiant Nature finish 13th in the 1994 edition.

Throughout the years, Winchell and his father spent hours upon hours talking horses and planning strategy for their racing operation. That operation included the 320-acre Oakwind Farm near Lexington, Ky., which they purchased in 1976.

The Winchell family has had many graded stakes winners, among them Mira Femme, Olympio, Tight Spot, Sea Cadet, and Wild Wonder. But they have never had a horse as exciting as Tapit.

Ron Winchell knew Tapit, a gray son of Pulpit, was something special the first time he set eyes on him. As Ron tells it, there was only one horse that interested them at the 2002 September sales at Keeneland. Ron and Verne put a personal ceiling of $500,000 on the colt. When he hit the sales ring it was the Winchells and another bidder at $600,000. Ron reminded his father of the ceiling, and Verne said go one more time. They got Tapit at $625,000.

Verne Winchell died that November.

While Ron continues as a Las Vegas developer - he owns two Winchell's Pubs, which anchor his shopping centers - his interest in racing is a priority.

He sent the yearling Tapit to Keith Asmussen's Texas operation to school with a stablemate, Cuvee. Although Cuvee developed quicker and ultimately finished 12th as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, it was Tapit that had them buzzing. Asmussen said to Ron that Tapit was the fastest horse he'd ever broke, and advised Winchell to keep him on the East Coast. Tapit soon found his way to Ron's Eastern trainer, Michael Dickinson.

Tapit's first big win came in his second start, the Laurel Futurity. Now, the only horse who had been able to keep up with the quick Cuvee at the farm was running down foes in Maryland.

Tapit has been considered a Derby-caliber horse since his debut, but doubts arose after he finished sixth in the Florida Derby and came out of the race sick. Then Tapit won the Wood, and Winchell believes that Tapit has just started to come around.

That is just what some faithful Winchell's Pub patrons wanted to hear. It seems there are more than a few Las Vegas future book bets riding on the gray at odds that could be nearly 50 times his parimutuel Derby price.

Although Winchell witnessed Tapit's maiden win from the race book at Green Valley Ranch, he plans to be in Louisville for the Derby.

Tapit was the last horse Ron and Verne bought together. Ron recalled what his father told him then. Winning the Kentucky Derby "won't happen in my lifetime, but it will in yours."

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.