The Mint BG: The ‘Epicenter’ for Derby Day action

Bowling Green, Ky., is 113 miles and a time zone removed from Churchill Downs, but the Warren County seat will be south-central Kentucky’s “Epicenter” for Kentucky Derby pre-race festivities.

3/26/2022 – Epicenter with Joel Rosario aboard caprtures the 109th running of the Grade II $1,000,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. Hodges Photography / Amanda Hodges Weir

That’s because the close second choice for the 148th Kentucky Derby, Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter, was foaled and raised at 300-acre Westwind Farms on Three Springs Road in Bowling Green. That’s about five miles from The Mint Bowling Green — the new Post Time racing and sports lounge and historical horse racing facility that will be Derby Party Central on May 7, when Epicenter will attempt to win the world’s greatest horse race.

It’s rare enough to have a Kentucky-bred horse born west of Greater Louisville run in the Kentucky Derby, let alone to be among the favorites. Spend a Buck, who was born east of Owensboro in Daviess County, won the 1985 Derby over favored Chief’s Crown. Before that, the last Kentucky Derby winner to come out of western or south-central Kentucky was 1925 victor Flying Ebony, born in Christian County.

In another twist, Epicenter is owned by Ron Winchell, co-owner of The Mint Bowling Green and The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs, the unique racing and gaming locale 23 miles south in Franklin, Ky.

“I didn’t realize the horse was from Bowling Green until I read it somewhere,” Winchell said. “But having The Mint project in Bowling Green, it’s just a great story line. I love that he’s from Bowling Green. You couldn’t make that up. I think it’s neat, and I think it’s great for Bowling Green.

“… One of the significant things – not to mention that he’s the second choice in the Derby — but having the horse come from Bowling Green and having The Mint that we opened up in December, it’s just a great tie back to that region and the breeder. People from the Bowling Green area are obviously huge sports fans. You see a lot of that, especially around the football season. Hopefully a horse from that region will create some more fans for horse racing. It’s fun and ties back to The Mint. I know they’re throwing a pretty significant little party there. Hopefully people will get behind Epicenter and behind the horse from their city.

“I’d love to win the Derby, take the trophy back to The Mint and display it for a little bit of time and let people come by and see it. Hopefully we’re in that position.”

Westwind Farms is owned and operated by brothers Mike, Brent and Kevin Harris and Mike’s sons Justin and Tyler, with the family doing all the work themselves. The brothers are the grandsons of J.R. Bettersworth, who started out in show horses before getting into Thoroughbred breeding. The Harrises sold Epicenter as a yearling at Keeneland’s 2020 September sale to Winchell for $260,000 — the most they’ve ever gotten for one of their horses.

The Mint Bowling Green has declared that “Post Time is your EPICENTER for Derby Day action!” with The Mint’s new sports bar appropriately decorated with a Derby theme, including a big cutout of Epicenter with which guests can take their picture.

Both The Mint Bowling Green and The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs will offer drink specials from noon-8 p.m. CT, including the new Epicenter cocktail. Drawings for prizes will take place at both properties after the Kentucky Derby.

Epicenter is trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, North American racing’s all-time win leader and who tied for Kentucky Downs’ 2021 training title. He is ridden by 2021 Kentucky Downs record-setting jockey Joel Rosario, voted the 2021 Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding jockey and who won the 2013 Kentucky Derby on Orb.

Asmussen had never met the Harrises before the Winchell team bought Epicenter. Asked his relationship with the Bowling Green breeders, the trainer laughed and said, “The relationship is that I’m a huge fan of the horses they raise.

“He’s a very special horse. He’s been a standout from Day One. They knew it then, and he’s proven it. That is the special part. When you’re around these horses — the Harrises going back considerably farther than me — you foal out something and you have an opinion immediately. The second you lay eyes on them, you’re ‘Who are you going to be? How good are you going to be, and where do you end up?’ Looking at Epicenter at Keeneland when they were showing him (at the sale), body language and everything, this was their favorite. They felt they had a good one, and very proud that Epicenter prove them right.

“… There’s so much pride with getting to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby. The build up to is almost year-round. The clock starts at the moment you acquire them, or they are born. We’re Derby dreamers. For him to have checked off all the boxes in the way that he has is extremely exciting. And representing south-central Kentucky, racing and the fanbase everywhere you go, it’s wonderful for horses of this quality to excite people as much as they do.”

Epicenter has won four of his six starts, earning $1,010,639. After losing his debut, his only defeat came by a head when he was second in the Fair Grounds’ Lecomte Stakes (G3). Epicenter came back to win the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star (G2) by 2 3/4 lengths and the $1 million Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles by 2 1/2 lengths.

The serendipity between Epicenter, his birthplace and owner really started when Epicenter won the Gun Runner Stakes on Dec. 26 in New Orleans. Two days later, The Mint Bowling Green opened.

The Gun Runner is named for the 2017 Horse of the Year campaigned by Winchell and Three Chimneys Farm, where he is now a stallion off to an unparalleled start that includes siring unbeaten 2-year-old filly champion Echo Zulu, one of the Kentucky Oaks favorites. Echo Zulu is co-owned by Winchell, trained by Asmussen and ridden by Rosario.


Irons Steakhouse honors WInchell commitment to excellence

The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs recently opened its new Irons Steakhouse, providing the first such restaurant between Bowling Green and Nashville.

Irons Steakhouse’s name is a shout-out to a saddle’s metal stirrups that are all that keep 115-pound jockeys aboard 1,000-pound horses running more than 30 miles an hour in a race. (Jockeys don’t sit in the saddle during a race, instead balancing their weight on the balls of their feet in the “irons” while perched over a horse’s withers, the equine equivalent of shoulders.) Irons also evokes strength and endurance, which describes the Winchell family’s horse-racing heritage that the restaurant commemorates.

The Mint Gaming Hall co-owner Ron Winchell, who with Marc Falcone heads the partnership that bought Kentucky Downs in March, 2019,  inherited his dad’s business acumen and affinity for entrepreneurship and horse racing.

The Winchell name is instantly recognizable in racing circles in America and abroad.

Ron Winchell has built upon the high-quality breeding and racing operation that Verne Winchell started in the 1950s, with Epicenter and Echo Zulu the latest examples.

Since picking up the reins upon his father’s passing, Ron in partnership with his mother, Joan, also has campaigned 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, 2014 Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup Distaff heroine Untapable, 2012 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Tapizar, 2008 Louisiana Derby victor Pyro, 2005 Kentucky Oaks winner Summerly and Cuvee, one of the top 2-year-olds of 2003, among its many major winners.

The last horse that Ron purchased with his father was a silver-hued yearling bought two months before Verne’s 2002 death at age 87. That colt named Tapit captured three of six races, including New York’s Grade 1 Wood Memorial to emerge among the favorites for the 2004 Kentucky Derby. Tapit finished ninth in the Derby but his real fame has come as a breed-shaping stallion and one of the sport’s best sires of the last half-century. At one stage, Tapit was in such demand that he commanded a $300,000 stud fee to be bred to a mare. His coat now snow white, Tapit stands in stud at Lexington’s acclaimed Gainesway Farm.

Tapit’s progeny include champions Essential Quality, Untapable, Hansen and Stardom Bound; and Belmont Stakes winners Tapwrit, Creator and Tonalist. His sons such as Constitution and Frosted also are successful stallions.

Irons honors the Winchell commitment to excellence, with the bar’s signature cocktails including the Gun Runner Espresso Martini, Tapit’s Toast and other shout-outs to the family’s top horses.

Related videos on Epicenter and his Kentucky Derby run:

May 3 zoom media call: Winchell

May 3 zoom media call: Asmussen

April 24 interview: Winchell

April 24 interview: Asmussen

The Mint BG: The 'Epicenter' for Derby Day action - The Mint Gaming Hall