02/13/2008 12:00AM

Pyro's Risen Star? Pretty cool


In the wake of Pyro's victory in the Risen Star Stakes last weekend, the punning and wordplay has been out of control. If the colt did not "blaze," he was "on fire" or "ignited" a rally that carried him to a "smoking" two-length win.

"I just thought you guys might like a name you could hang a few things on," owner Ron Winchell sheepishly admitted.

The way Pyro ran, he could be called Mud and still be at the top of the charts. It has been a long time since a 3-year-old has made such an impact in a Triple Crown prep. Easy Goer's Gotham Stakes comes to mind, or maybe the Santa Anita Derby tour-de-force of Winning Colors. For sheer drama, though, Pyro takes the prize, knifing through the field through a final quarter-mile that could have just as easily won him an Arc de Triomphe.

All of Pyro's people were in the Fair Grounds stands that day, and all of them complained later of emotional whiplash.

"My first reaction was that he shouldn't have won," said Winchell, who owns Pyro with his mother, Joan. "Getting caught in traffic like that. As he came around, and he was dead last, I was thinking, 'He's way better that this.' And then he was."

David Fiske, who manages the Winchell horses from their Corinthia Farm in Kentucky, was right alongside.

"When he was last, at the top of the stretch, it was kind of like watching a car wreck," Fiske said. "You see what's happening, but you don't really understand. Then he explodes inside the eighth pole and wins going away, and you can't believe you just saw that."

The broader world has taken note. Pyro has become the darling of racing chat rooms and pre-Derby buzz. The YouTube video of the Risen Star was readily available to those so inclined (views as of late Wednesday morning - 2,103), and even racing writer Andrew Beyer went to great lengths to point out that Pyro's modest 90 Beyer Speed Figure was nothing personal, that it merely reflected the crawling early pace, and that the colt is very much for real.

Somehow, Winchell and Fiske have managed to keep their cool. These are guys not easily impressed. The Winchell family Thoroughbred operation dates back to the late 1950s, when patriarch Verne Winchell was spreading his drive-through donut shops up and down the West Coast and beginning to dabble in horses, with young trainers like Dale Landers and Ron McAnally.

It was McAnally who bought Winchell his first outstanding horse, named Donut King, out of a Del Mar yearling sale. Donut King won the 1961 Champagne Stakes, beating Crimson Satan, Jaipur, and Sir Gaylord in the process. Through the years, runners like Classic Go Go, King Go Go, Sea Cadet, Olympio, Amerique, Call Now, Wild Wonder, and Fleet Renee carried the maroon Winchell colors to major victories before Verne Winchell's death, at the age of 87, in 2002.

Given the financial challenges of the business, it is never a surprise to see a high-profile stable scale back or even fade away as heirs take the field. In California, the once dominant Golden Eagle Farm operation of John C. Mabee has been marginalized. The family of Robert Lewis still has a few runners, but nowhere near the volume of past glory days. And the Allen Paulson colors pop up from time to time with a good one, but the international sweep of the stable is ancient history.

To his credit, Ron Winchell has picked up and run with the flame. At 35, Winchell spends most of his waking hours concerned with building and operating restaurants in the Las Vegas area, all of them featuring a vigorous gaming component. With the help of Fiske, who has been with the family since 1980, as well as the Asmussen family breaking and training operation, the Winchells have continued to compete at the top of the game.

In 2003, the stable featured major stakes winners Cuvee and Tapit. In 2005, the Winchells finally won a classic when Summerly took the Kentucky Oaks. In 2007, the stable leader was Zanjero, who has earned more than a million dollars.

Ron Winchell has not been afraid to pull the trigger on big numbers (Zanjero was $700,000, Summerly $410,000), but Pyro is a homegrown hero, closely related to both Wild Wonder and Olympio.

"I delivered Pyro," Fiske said. "I delivered his mother. I delivered his grandmother. And I remember when Verne claimed the third dam sight unseen one day when he just flipped open the Racing Form and liked what he saw."

The best Verne Winchell ever did in the Kentucky Derby was Classic Go Go's fourth-place finish in 1981.

"I watched my dad chase the Derby trail for forty-some years," Ron Winchell said. "Hopefully we can complete it one of these days."

Pyro's Risen Star is a big step in that direction.

"I think he got exactly what I wanted, which was about a seven-furlong jog and a quarter-mile sprint," Winchell added. "Everybody wants you to go out and win by 10 lengths, but that wouldn't be the best thing for the horse. I'd like to see him go out there and turn up the heat just a little bit each race."

Yes, he said heat. It's hard to resist.