10/30/2017 2:56PM

Ron Winchell's passion for racing comes from dad

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Barbara D. Livingston
Ron Winchell (above), the owner of Gun Runner, has carried on a passion for Thoroughbreds learned from his father, Verne.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Some fathers and sons bond over playing catch in the backyard. For Ron Winchell, his earliest and fondest memories of his late father are of going to the track.

“Some of my earliest memories are coming to Santa Anita,” said Winchell, who grew up just west of the track in San Marino. “It’s something my dad and I did together.”

Verne Winchell, the family patriarch, died nearly 15 years ago at age 87, but the passion he had for racing carried over to his son. Winchell, 45, currently has 120 horses, including racing and breeding stock. None is better than Gun Runner, who will try to secure Eclipse Awards as both Horse of the Year and champion older dirt male should he win the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday here at Del Mar.

“It’s nice to have one like Gun Runner, a horse who’s this good, this consistent,” Winchell said in a recent interview at Santa Anita.

His family has had some very good ones over the years. Verne Winchell, a successful businessman who founded the eponymous donut chain, raced horses for four decades. He had such outstanding runners as 1961 Champagne winner Donut King, 1991 turf champion Tight Spot, and dozens of other stakes winners, including Fleet Renee, Olympio, and Sea Cadet. He owned a farm in Kentucky, which Ron has kept.

“Growing up as a kid, we’d drive to Kentucky and stay there for most of the summer on vacation,” Winchell said. “One of my favorite photos at the farm is of my mom, pregnant with me, at Santa Anita.

“I never really thought about going into the sport. It wasn’t a decision. It came naturally.”

The baton got passed with the colt Tapit. He was purchased as a yearling in September 2002. Two months later, Verne Winchell died.

“He was the last horse my dad and I bought at the September sale,” Winchell said. “I honestly thought he’d win the Derby. I thought it was fate.”

Tapit, who won the Wood Memorial in his final Derby prep, did not win the 2004 Derby. He finished ninth. But his legacy proved profound, for Tapit was to become one of the best sires of all time.

Included among Tapit’s best runners is Untapable, whom Winchell – who operates Winchell Thoroughbreds with his mom, Joan – bred and raced. She won the Kentucky Oaks and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2014, with the latter race providing the memorable moment when jockey Rosie Napravnik announced her retirement on the winner’s podium. The influence of Verne Winchell extended to Untapable, as he bred Untapable’s dam, Fun House.

Winchell lived in San Marino until eighth grade, when – largely for business reasons – his family moved to Las Vegas.

“My dad liked Vegas,” Winchell said. “He loved going to the sports book because, back then, if you couldn’t be at the track and you didn’t watch the race at a sports book, you had to wait for a phone call to find out how your horse did.”

The lure of the desert proved attractive to Winchell, too, for he and his wife and two daughters reside there. They have one dog.

“I’m surrounded by girls. Even our dog is a girl,” Winchell said.

Winchell has business interests in Nevada, including 18 gaming taverns, “small, local places,” as he describes them, including several Jackpot Joanie’s, which are named for his mom.

It is racing, though, that makes him light up. Winchell likes all aspects of the game, from racing to breeding. He’s in action at the September yearling sales, buying as well as selling.

“Horse trading, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse,” Winchell said. One that got away was Paddy O’Prado, a half-brother to Untapable – both are out of Fun House – who was sold as a yearling for $105,000. He went on to earn more than $1.7 million and won five graded stakes, including the Grade 1 Secretariat. But Winchell realizes that’s the cost of running a respected operation.

“You’ve got to bring good ones to the sale,” he said.

Paddy O’Prado finished third in the Kentucky Derby, which is the best finish of any Winchell family-owned or -bred runner in that race.

“Racing was a passion of my dad,” Winchell said. “He chased the Derby, and now I’m chasing it, but we’ve always had a good appreciation of seeing any great performance.”

Gun Runner has given him plenty of great performances in his 17-race career. He has won 10 times, including his last three starts, which all came in Grade 1 company. His only loss in five starts this year came in the Dubai World Cup, when he was second to Arrogate, whom he meets again in the Classic.

After that, Winchell said Gun Runner would be pointed to the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in January, and he said it was “50-50” whether he and Three Chimneys Farm – partners with Winchell Thoroughbreds in Gun Runner – would keep Gun Runner in training all of next year.

First things first, though. A win Saturday would make Gun Runner the most accomplished horse in his family’s five decades in the sport, and provide yet another cherished link to his time with his father.