11/28/2002 1:00AM

Winchell's 40 years of fun

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Racing lost a piece of its living history Tuesday upon the death of Verne Winchell. Death was attributed to heart failure, suffered in his home in Las Vegas while doing what he did every day - exercising on his treadmill.

Winchell spent better than half of his 87 years running a Thoroughbred operation that could serve as a model for the game. His success spanned parts of the past six decades, beginning in the late 1950's, when he was still making his own doughnuts in his first shop in Alhambra, Calif.

Donut King, a colt purchased at Del Mar as a yearling, put both Verne Winchell and Ron McAnally on the map when he won the 1961 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. They spent the next 40 years trying to find another one that good. They didn't, but there was a lot of fun in the search.

"People might have thought him a little on the frugal side, but this is the kind of guy he was," McAnally said. "When we'd go for coffee and doughnuts in the track kitchen, I'd have to buy. But if I told him about a horse he should get, he'd write the check right there. He always did the thing that made sense."

Winchell came from that generation of Midwesterner who grew up during the Great Depression and never took anything for granted. It is no coincidence that such self-made men as Allen Paulson, John Mabee, Bob Lewis, Robert Walter, and Winchell hailed from places like Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, made their fortunes out west, and then turned to the challenging adventure of raising and racing Thoroughbreds.

"Verne was proud of the fact that he owned everything he had," McAnally said. "And he really didn't think much of people who went into debt to buy horses."

Winchell and McAnally rarely spoke on the phone. After more than 40 years of business and friendship, they pretty much knew what the other guy was thinking. And with McAnally down to just two horses for Winchell, there wasn't a whole lot to report.

But when Winchell's filly Free Spin won her second race last Sunday at Hollywood Park, coming from last place with her trademark rush, McAnally decided to make a call to Winchell's home in Las Vegas. That was Monday morning.

"Verne, did you see the race?" McAnally asked.

"I did," Winchell replied. "My God, she was so far back, I didn't think she was going to get up."

The conversation turned briefly to Olympio, Free Spin's sire, who won four different derbies for Winchell and McAnally during the 1991 season (Arkansas, Minnesota, American, and Hollywood), then eventually drifted back to the days of Donut King.

There was plenty in between, stakes winners of all shapes and size, most of them bred by Winchell at his Oakwind Farm in Kentucky, broken by the Asmussen clan in El Paso, then brought to the races by McAnally and his crew.

There was Sea Cadet, a very fast horse with a very short tail, and those gorgeous brothers Tight Spot and Valiant Nature, one a turf champion, the other a Hollywood Futurity winner. On Target and Future Quest won consecutive runnings of the Del Mar Futurity. Call Now won the Del Mar Debutante. Amerique gave McAnally and Winchell a coveted San Juan Capistrano.

It is no coincidence that Dan Landers, McAnally's top assistant, is the son of Dale Landers, who provided Winchell with his first stakes winner when Mr. Eiffel won the Del Mar Derby of 1959. Winchell employed a number of trainers, beginning with Buster Millerick, and they all shared an old-school approach.

For many years, Walter Greenman was Winchell's main man in northern California and the Midwest. Cecil Jolley trained Winchell's champion filly Mira Femme as well as the tough old King Go Go. More recently it was Greg Gilchrist who harnessed the brilliant Wild Wonder, a four-time stakes winner in 1998, while Michael Dickinson deftly handled Fleet Renee, winner of the 2001 Ashland and Mother Goose.

"How do you feel lately?" Winchell asked McAnally, shifting the subject to more personal concerns.

"Oh, I get my aches and pains," said McAnally, who just turned 70.

"When I get up in the morning, I'm pretty stiff," Winchell went on. "But I still do my treadmill. That's where I'm headed right now."

"The next time you come over here, Verne, we've got to have lunch," McAnally said. "I know I've only got these two fillies for you, but that doesn't matter. You know I love you."

"And I love you, Ronnie," Winchell replied.

"By the way, did you get that John Williams CD I told you about?"

"Yes I did," Winchell said. "I went right out and bought it. It's great."

Its title: "Unforgettable."