WINCHELLS BACK AT DERBY WITH 50-1 LONGSHOT
(Combatant went off at 70-1 and finished 18th in the 20-horse field. During the walkover to the starting gate, he wore a special camouflaged blanket to promote Home for Our Troops.)
A year ago, Las Vegas horse breeder Ron Winchell of the Winchell Donuts family watched his Kentucky Derby entry, Gun Runner, enter the stretch with the lead.
“I thought he was going to win,” Winchell said by telephone Friday from his home in Lexington, Ky. Gun Runner finished third and went on to win the 2017 Breeder’s Cup Classic on the way to claiming American Horse of the Year of Year honors. No other U.S. horse had more earnings, $15.99 million, in 2017.
Winchell and his mother Joan, partners in Winchell Thoroughbreds, are back at the Derby under different circumstances. Their 2018 hopeful, Combatant, comes in as a “bubble” horse in the 20-horse field. "He was No. 21 and got in at the last minute,” said Winchell.
Combatant is a 50-1 longshot after drawing the outside post. He’s overdue after a stretch of bad luck. It’s the third consecutive race he’s drawn the outside post.
But Winchell, 47, sees a silver lining in a horse “that’s always kind of had bad-luck scenarios.”
His numbers are deceiving. Combatant has only one win in his run-up to the Derby. Back on Oct. 29, the Kentucky-bred colt captured a Maiden Special Weight at Churchill Downs after a fourth place finish in his debut a month earlier.
After the win, he reeled off three consecutive runnerup finishes in the Remington Springboard Mile Stakes at Remington Park, the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, rallying from seventh place.
In the Rebel Stakes on March 17 he again came from well back, missing the runner-up spot by a head and finished third behind Magnum Moon and Solomini.
He was fourth in the Arkansas Derby on April 14.
“His consistency has been right there,” said Winchell. “He has the fastest finishing time of the Derby. That’s what got us here.”
Combatant is up against a formidable field – one of the best, according to experts.
The Bob Baffert-trained Justify was established as the early 3-1 favorite and will start from the No. 7 post.
But the Winchells know there’s always hope in Louisville’s rarified air in early May. The 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo finished fourth in his Derby tuneup before winning as a 50-1 longshot.
Winchell spent his early years in San Marino, Calif., before moving to Las Vegas with his family in 1983.
His father, Verne, founded the doughnut company and was later CEO and chairman of the Denny’s restaurant chain. Verne died in 2002 at the age of 87.
“Horseracing was something we did together. It’s in my blood,” said the Bishop Gorman graduate. This is the family’s seventh horse in the Derby.
“We have 120 horses, about 30 running and training,” he said. He’s worked with Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen for years.
His dad bought the farm operation in Lexington in 1976. Ron will never forget his introduction to Kentucky. “It was the year of the 100-year storm. Some of our horses’ ears were shorter because of frostbite.”
It was 70 degrees and cloudy in Lexington when I chatted with Winchell. A Vegas Golden Knights fan, he was planning his evening around watching Game 5 of the second-round playoff game with San Jose. He gave away his seats in section five.
His lucky number is usually five, a good omen, perhaps with the Derby being held on May 5. “But I’m going with No. 20 on Saturday – our post position,” he said.