By Chris McGrath
A Sunday afternoon in August, back in the 1970s, and a student at U.C. Davis is trying to catch up on his history notes ahead of his final semester. There's a knock at the door. Two girls.
“They wanted to know if my roommate Morgan was home,” remembers David Fiske. “He was not. Asked if my roommate Jeff was home. He was not. Asked if my roommate Pat was home. He was not.”
Nothing else for it, so they wondered if Fiske would like to come along to a party.
“I don't know. Where is it?”
“It's at the farm.”
Well, any place that these girls might know couldn't be much of a farm.
“Sure, yeah, I'm finished studying: I'll go with you.”
So they went out to a ranch outside Dixon, next town along the valley. Fiske didn't know a soul, but at one point found himself resting an elbow on a thick stack of papers. He took a look. Stallion contracts.
“Turned out the guy was standing two Appaloosas, breeding to Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse mares,” Fiske says. “And I thought, 'Well, that's interesting: you actually charge people to breed to these horses?'”
He couldn't know it, but he had just stumbled across a life's work. Yet nor was even this the most precious serendipity occasioned by the fact that his three buddies happened to be out that afternoon. Because as he was leaving, Fiske was followed to the door by a girl named Martha, a University of Kentucky graduate who was working with some show horses there. She said to stop out again sometime.
“And that is my wife for the last 45 years,” says Fiske. “Next time I went out there, we went trail-riding. Now, I don't ride. Okay, as a kid I'd play with the entries at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, in the green sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, and see how my picks did the next day. But I'd do the same thing with stocks on the financial page, and certainly did not grow up around horses. So Martha and her friend thought it'd be fun to have me ride a green-broke Appaloosa mare up into those hills there. Turned out that if I was game or stupid enough to do that, she thought I was probably okay.”
Moreover the guy running the farm—”crazy and charismatic, just a ton of fun to be around”–started getting Fiske to help with the horses as his visits became more frequent. To the extent that when he graduated, without no real plan for the rest of his life, Fiske suddenly found that he had a job there.
And without that random apprenticeship, we wouldn't find him now supervising one of the most successful programs of its size on the modern Turf. Winchell Thoroughbreds have produced a champion stallion in Tapit, and a record-breaking newcomer in Gun Runner; they raced the champion sophomore of 2022, in Epicenter (Not This Time); and after his massive step forward in the GII Louisiana Derby last weekend, they once again have a live shot at the GI Kentucky Derby with Disarm–aptly enough, a son of Gun Runner out of a Tapit mare.
Yet teaming up with the Winchell family in 1980 was itself another pretty random development. Martha had brought her husband back to her native state: she was working for Hagyards in Lexington while Fiske, at 28, was in bloodstock advertising. In the course of her work, Martha happened to be asked by the Winchells' manager, who was leaving, whether she knew anyone who might take over.
Verne H. Winchell and his family were due at the farm for their summer vacation, and Fiske thought there could be no harm in meeting the donut king. “Even though the only thing I'd managed by that stage was… Well, I could manage to get my shoes on,” Fiske recalls wryly. “I had not managed anything even close to a 50-horse racing stable, and almost 50 broodmares, and 15 people working on a farm.”
Winchell had previously operated a farm in California–racing the eponymous Donut King to win the Champagne S. in 1961, plus homebred Mira Femme to be co-champion juvenile filly five years later–but had recently upgraded his program to Kentucky.
The meeting, the interview–whatever it was–it went well. Fiske was asked to stay for lunch, then dinner, and started as manager two weeks later.
“Mr. Winchell was an intuitive guy,” he remembers. “He would go by his gut, and I guess that worked out to my benefit. I had the best job in town: a 320-acre park to live in, pool, tennis court, a 50-horse racing stable to play with–and owners who lived on the other side of the country! I'd talk to Mr. Winchell long distance a couple times a week, and they'd come and stay at the farm for a few weeks every summer. Looking back, it's remarkable that somebody he'd just met was handed the keys and told, 'Have at it.'”
But Verne's instincts were amply vindicated. There had been no grand plan, no real strategy. New barns were going up; there were 50 stallion shares to distribute; broodmares from Maryland to California; half a dozen trainers spread round the country. Something was working, to be fair, in that Fiske reckons Verne bred at least one stakes winner from 36 consecutive crops. But this unsupervised young man was soon making things work better yet. By the time Verne died, in 2002, Fiske had helped him from around 25 stakes winners to 80–and these had included homebred 1991 Turf male champion Tight Spot (His Majesty), Fleet Renee (Seattle Slew), Sea Cadet (Bolger) and Olympio (Naskra).
A key moment had been when they started funneling all the young stock through Keith Asmussen in Texas. One of Asmussen's sons, Cash, was taking tax breaks from a brilliant career in Europe–and where else could you get your yearlings broken in by a champion jockey? Around that time Verne was becoming disenchanted with the Californian circuit, and turning increasingly to Michael Dickinson and “this new upstart trainer named Steve Asmussen.”
Dickinson, of course, had Tapit, a rather frustrating racehorse, but a game-changer afterwards. “He was clearly the best stallion of the first part of this century,” Fiske says proudly. “He did things that other horses had never done. I mean, it would be record earnings on top of record earnings. As leading first-crop sire, he was also leading sire of 2-year-olds. I sat in the Keeneland library and looked as far back as I could, and Tapit was only the seventh stallion to do that. And the others were all horses like Danzig. The next guy to do it was Uncle Mo, and the next after him was….?”
Gun Runner! The horse that has crowned this second cycle, where Verne's heir Ron had gone “all in” with Steve Asmussen.
“We started giving Steve a few horses, and he's winning races for us at Bandera Downs and Trinity Meadows and Birmingham,” Fiske recalls. “And as he learned his craft, he just got better and better. Soon he'd gotten to a point where he was winning more 2-year-old races than anybody in the country.
“Now if you're going to have a broodmare band, as opposed to just buying yearlings, that gives you the longest risk horizon of all. You buy a yearling and give it to a trainer, and it doesn't win, you're out the purchase price and some training. But doing what we do, first they've got to get pregnant, then they've got to carry the pregnancy, then you've got to get the foal–and it's like three years to find out where you are. So if you send these horses to somebody who just hammers the life out of them, that will impact what their brothers and sisters are worth, what their mother's worth, the whole deal. And since you won't be winning stakes races unless you first break your maiden, Steve started to get more and more of the horses until pretty soon he had most of them.”
Fiske, then, has served as the hinge connecting two generations of Winchells and two generations of Asmussens. Ron was only 30 when he took over from his late father. He'd only been on the scene sporadically through high school and college, and was then away cutting his teeth in business, building sports bars in Las Vegas. But he took to his youthful responsibilities with much the same flair as had Fiske himself, a couple of decades previously.
“He's been around it all his life,” Fiske notes. “I have winner's circle photos of him 'in utero,' when Mrs. Winchell was pregnant! And I think he always liked it: the action, the volatility was attractive to him. He's got a pretty good streak of gambler in him. But I tell people he's the hardest-working man I know that doesn't have to work. He's constantly on the go. I'm real proud of him, having known him since he was an 8-year-old kid and seeing everything that he's accomplished.”
Gun Runner having himself thrived with maturity, his stock was widely expected to do much the same.
“But he came up from Florida during the spring meet at Keeneland,” Fiske reminds us. “And Steve had only trained him a little while when he was, like, 'Holy cow, this thing's good.' He could have run earlier, but to Steve's credit, he just held off, didn't take him to Saratoga, just planned out a series of races for him to maximize his talent. Because we weren't buying horses to be what Scott Blasi [Asmussen's assistant] calls 'go-karts.' They're meant to be proper Derby horses, Classic horses, like Midnight Bourbon, like Epicenter.”
At stud, moreover, the Winchells rowed in from the start. Fiske admits that they didn't breed too many to Tapit, for instance, when he was $15,000. Typically they've given their retired colts half a dozen mares to see how they work out. But they sent Gun Runner 17.
“And they all came out looking like little Gun Runners,” Fiske marvels. “They had incredible consistency. So we pushed on with a dozen or so mares the second year, just on the strength of how the foals looked. I mean, if none of them can run, that's a pretty slender limb that we were crawling out on.”
But he remembers being at Churchill one morning, and asking Asmussen how one of Gun Runner's first winners had come back.
“Oh, great,” Asmussen said. “These things can take a lot of training.” And he grabbed one of the partition pipes round the box where they were watching work. “That's what his legs feel like today.”
Fiske replied that he was unsurprised. Blasi had once told him that Gun Runner had never even seen an ice bucket.
Asmussen shook his head. “Not only has he never seen an ice bucket,” he said. “We never used to do up his legs.”
To be fair, Lady Luck extracted ample redress last year. Losing Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) was harrowing. Then they ran into the unaccountable Rich Strike (Keen Ice) in the Derby with Epicenter, who ended up being vanned off the course at the Breeders' Cup.
“I've told the people that do those new owner seminars, that they should just play the last 75 yards of the Derby, from our point of view,” Fiske says. “Because that pretty much encapsulates the highs and the lows right there. I mean, if you can't handle getting beat like that, and can't handle having a horse of the caliber of Midnight Bourbon drop dead, then you need to find another game to play. On the other hand, if most people had Midnight Bourbon, that would be a career horse for them. Or if they could finish second in the Derby, huge.”
As a yearling purchase, Epicenter was a tribute to the balance of this program.
“We have talked about this at length,” Fiske says. “Because it seems like our successes break down to almost 50/50, homebreds versus purchases. Tight Spot, Fleet Renee, now Gunite (Gun Runner); and then you've got Echo Zulu (Gun Runner), Epicenter, Midnight Bourbon.
“We're kind of old-timey in that we don't have stallions, don't have boarders, and we're not a commercial yearling producer, per se. We're either a little big farm or a big little farm, I never know which. But almost every other property in town has one of those three things.”
That's not to say that they don't sell yearlings. Under Verne Winchell, the largest foal crop was 42 or 44, and he'd want to lose half before they were broken. But that was never the driving focus when putting matings together.
“In fact, I remember standing with him one day watching a yearling Franklin Groves was selling for well over a million,” Fiske recalls. “And Mr. Winchell just goes, 'I don't know why that would be exciting to someone like Franklin. He has several other millions, and that's just one more.' Mr. Winchell got a lot more enjoyment just out of watching the horses run.
“When I came in, it was all starting to change from being a sport. You still had the old moneyed guys, with blow money they could write off against other income, deciding foal shares on a flip of a coin. Everything has become more professional, on every level. Look at the veterinary practices in town here: among the best in the world. But I used to pick up my wife after work and everybody was walking around with a plastic specimen cup full of bourbon. I don't think that happens anymore! Nowadays you come to a sale and you might see more attorneys and financial planners and bloodstock agents than actual horsemen.”
However well this program has played a changing landscape, there naturally remain unrequited ambitions. Especially after last year's tough beat, to share Asmussen's first Derby would be priceless. But whatever happens from here, Fiske proudly compares the Winchell program to the way Kentucky itself punches above its weight.
“Everybody thinks it's hillbilly, but we've so many artists, writers, actors, musicians here,” he says. “And we have our signature industries. You tell me the signature industry of Indiana or Oregon? And actually that's really frustrating for Ron, recently, now that he's a racetrack and slot machine owner in Kentucky, and has to deal with the legislators dragging their feet in Frankfort. It's like, 'Guys, you've got this thing that you can build on, this thing most states don't have. You're blessed!'”
As are we all. But none could feel more so than Fiske himself, looking back on four decades sharing the Midas touch of his patrons. Yet none of it would have happened had any of his roommates been home that afternoon those girls knocked the door.
“Just some fortuitous events and decisions, I guess,” Fiske says with a shrug. “But a lot of the guys on the farm have been there for years. The veterinarian that does our repro work, I first met him in 1976. Steve has been training for us forever. And I've had the same job 42 years. So there's kind of a theme there. Maybe I'm unimaginative, or lazy, but it does kind of gnaw at me because of our recent success. I don't know that I do anything different than anybody else. Everybody I know in this business is working hard. But somehow or another, we've got all this stuff happening.
“I'm something of a student of history, that's part of what attracted me to this: the traditions, the genealogies, the great breeders and their methods, the Greentrees and the Whitneys, going back to the English and French sides of it. But Gun Runner coming on the heels of Tapit?” A shake of the head, a grateful smile. “I don't know if that ever happened before.”