03/13/2012 2:52PM

Oaklawn Park: Sabercat ready to start campaign for Winchells, Asmussen

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Steve Asmussen looks over Sabercat last fall at Churchill Downs. Sabercat returns to racing in Saturday's Grade 2 Rebel Stakes.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – The Winchell and Asmussen families have been doing business together for three decades. Keith Asmussen gave such Winchell-owned runners as Tight Spot, Olympio, and Sea Cadet their first lessons in racing at his training center in Laredo, Texas. And his son, Steve Asmussen, would later train major stakes winners Summerly, Cuvee, and Pyro for the Winchells.

The current marquee horse the families have is Sabercat, who Saturday will make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2, $500,000 Rebel at Oaklawn Park. The 1 1/16-mile race is the first of two preps he will have before the Kentucky Derby. The other is the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 14.

Sabercat earned something of a “full-ride scholarship” to the Kentucky Derby in his 2-year-old finale Nov. 19, when he won the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot. The race was worth $600,000 to the winner, placing Sabercat fourth on the graded earnings preference list for the Kentucky Derby. If he advances to Churchill Downs, Sabercat will attempt to be the first Kentucky Derby winner for both the family of the late Verne Winchell, who bred and raced champions Mira Femme and Tight Spot, and Steve Asmussen, who has trained two Horses of the Year, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.

“Obviously, he’s got enough earnings to go,” said Ron Winchell, the 39-year-old son of Verne Winchell, the founder of Winchell’s Donuts who died in 2002. “I’m hoping in the next two starts he kind of validates himself as a real player. But even if he doesn’t win the next two races, we’re probably going forward to the Derby, just because the way it lays out. It’s such a different race. The dynamics of that race are so profoundly different. I’ve kind of changed my opinion of it the last five years. Horses that win sometimes aren’t the obvious winners. If you’ve got a horse that can get the distance and qualifies, it’s almost worth taking a shot.”

Sabercat, who flew into Oaklawn from his Southern California base March 7, is one of 15 horses Winchell and his mother, Joan, keep in training. Most are with Asmsusen, including Grade 2 winner Tapizar. Asmussen first meet Verne Winchell in the 1980s, when he visited the Asmussen family’s El Primero Training Center.

“I can remember Mr. Winchell coming down there when I was just riding babies for my dad, when I was still in high school,” said Asmussen, 46.

“I think that Ron is carrying on his dad’s silks proudly.”

Sabercat was a $120,000 purchase at the 2010 Keeneland September auction and then went through the program at El Primero. He is a son of Bluegrass Cat, the 2006 Haskell winner who was second in that year’s Kentucky Derby behind Barbaro.

Sabercat, won his maiden in his fourth career start, his first two-turn try on dirt, and he remains unbeaten under such conditions. He advanced to the $75,000 Garden State at Monmouth Park on Oct. 2 and won by six lengths. He then traveled to Delta in Vinton, La., for the Jackpot and handled such variables as a significant ship, a six-furlong oval, and a laboring surface, en route to a four-length win.

“He’s really tremendous mentally,” Asmussen said. “The best way to describe it is he was an old soul last year. When you watched him train and work, he didn’t train like a baby or work like a baby. He acted like somebody you were waiting to go two turns with in June.

“I feel that he’s a horse that stays, that will get the distance, get a mile and a quarter.”

Ron Winchell, a gaming entrepreneur and commercial real estate developer based in Las Vegas, has taken aggressive steps to put the racing operation his father founded in better position to win the Kentucky Derby. He has streamlined breeding and buying objectives with the hope of achieving what Verne Winchell never did, despite wining the Champagne with Donut King, the Hollywood Futurity with Valiant Nature, the San Felipe with Sea Cadet, and the Arkansas Derby with Olympio.

“The Kentucky Derby is something that eluded my dad,” Winchell said. “He tried for 50 years, and I’ve kind of picked up that torch and am continuing the chase.”

Winchell and his mother have 25 broodmares at their Corinthia Farm in Lexington, Ky. They also own half of the shares in the syndicated stallion Tapit, their Wood Memorial winner of 2004 and the last yearling Ron and his father purchased together on their annual trips to Keeneland. Verne Winchell died two months later, and Tapit, who went on to run ninth in the Kentucky Derby, has since become a leading North American stallion.

“Most of the mares we have that warrant it go to Tapit,” Winchell said. “I also just purchased 25 percent interest in Cowboy Cal. The reason I did was that I had purchased three weanlings by Cowboy Cal and liked them so much I worked out a deal to buy a quarter of him.

“I’ve changed some things in the operation the last five or six years. We breed more toward stamina, toward routing horses. I weeded out the sprinting-type horses.”

The Winchells have had six Kentucky Derby starters alone or in partnership, with their best finish a fourth by Classic Go Go in 1981. They also are the breeders of Paddy O’Prado, who was third in the 2010 Derby.

As for Sabercat, both Winchell and Asmussen have been thrilled with how the horse has progressed from 2 to 3.

“He looks tremendous,” Asmussen said. “It’s what you want to see. There’s more of him, physically.

“I feel that the Rebel’s a good spot to get him started back.”