Filly Untapable, stallion Tapit recall glory days for Winchell Thoroughbreds

Untapable, with Rosie Napravnik up, won the Kentucky Oaks by 41/2 lengths. The filly who has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra is entered in the Haskell Invitational against males.
Untapable, with Rosie Napravnik up, won the Kentucky Oaks by 41/2 lengths. The filly who has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra is entered in the Haskell Invitational against males.

What has stood as a benchmark season for Winchell Thoroughbreds is still fresh in the mind of its racing manager, David Fiske.

And until recent months, few moments have compared to the heyday of some 23 years ago when a triumvirate of runners carrying the Winchell family colors were racking up Grade I wins.

"We had Tight Spot, who was eventually turf champion (in 1991), Sea Cadet and Olympio, and all three of them were Grade I winners and they all were running around 1991-92," Fiske, who has worked for the Winchells for more than 30 years, recalled this week. "It got to the point where we couldn't even get representatives to all the races. There were Grade I races that no one showed up for because those three horses were running back-to- back-to-back weekends."

The logistics of the 2014 season have allowed the Winchell contingent to witness most of this year's highlights. What they've seen, and what stands to transpire this weekend, is making a case to become the new pinnacle for the racing and breeding operation.

In addition to having the nation's current leading stallion in Tapit, the brilliant filly Untapable also carries the Winchell banner and stands to validate those who consider her the best 3-year-old of either gender when she faces males in Sunday's Grade I, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Founded by the late Verne Winchell and currently headed by his widow, Joan, and son Ron, Winchell Thoroughbreds is seeing decades of honing its breeding philosophy pay off in a giant, lump sum this year.

Untapable, a homebred product of Tapit, has carried the mantle with fiery aplomb. Obstinate in her demeanor at times, her standoffish attitude is nothing compared to her fear-inducing ability as she has been untested in four straight wins this season. Her 41/2-length triumph in the Kentucky Oaks is her smallest margin of victory in 2014.

Though he hasn't reached the level of his female stablemate, fellow Winchell homebred Tapiture has become a multiple graded stakes winner and Kentucky Derby entrant this season with a start in next weekend's West Virginia Derby probably on tap.

Even when one of their own isn't prevailing, Winchell Thoroughbreds has basked in a defining season for Tapit. The 13-year-old stallion, who stands at Gainesway and commanded a fee of $150,000 this year, produced his first classic winner when his son Tonalist — the favorite for Saturday's Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga — stymied California Chrome's Triple Crown bid by winning the Belmont Stakes on June 7.

"Those were pretty good years," Fiske said of the Winchells' run in the early 1990s. "But to have the best filly in the country and probably the best sire in the country, yes, this would be right up there with the best years we've had.

"When Ron's father was alive it was kind of like let's just try and breed and race a good horse. Ron's focus tends to be more toward two-turn classic-distance horses. And the Tapits seem to run anywhere. Short, long, dirt, turf, uphill, downhill ... doesn't seem to matter to them."

Champions have passed through the Winchells' ranks before. What Untapable could achieve may put her alongside some all-time greats.

The only two fillies who have won the Haskell, which dates to 1968, are Serena's Song in 1995 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009 — both of whom are Hall of Famers.

Comparisons to Rachel Alexandra have already been flung in Untapable's direction, and not just because the latter opened her 2014 campaign by winning the Grade III stakes named for the former at Fair Grounds last February.

Like Rachel Alexandra, Untapable is trained by Steve Asmussen and has taken a similar path to this point. Following in her predecessor's footsteps, Untapable handily won the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks en route to her Kentucky Oaks triumph. And while it wasn't the 191/4- length clinic Rachel Alexandra put on during her victory in the Mother Goose Stakes, Untapable left no doubt there was nothing this year's 3-year-old girls had for her when she took that 11⁄16-mile test by 91/4 lengths on June 28.

"Really, there is not a whole lot of downside to her running (in the Haskell)," Fiske said. "If she were to win the race ... it would certainly put her in the conversations for some year-end honors and awards. Not much downside, enormous upside."

Though she was deemed the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the Haskell, Untapable has a host of proven boys to fend off including graded stakes winner Medal Count, third in the Belmont Stakes last time out, and Bayern, 71/2-length winner of the Grade II Woody Stephens Stakes on June 7.

"It's going to be a battle for him," said Bayern's trainer, Bob Baffert, who will go for an unprecedented seventh Haskell victory. "The break will be important. His only chance is he needs to be up front to run well."

Before her Oaks triumph, Untapable became so worked up in the paddock her connections feared she had left her race in the walking ring.

Even she couldn't beat herself that day. A win on Sunday will solidify her ability and this year for the Winchells as ones for the ages.

"All the Beyer (Speed) figures and numbers would support the fact that she has run huge races," Fiske said. "By any measure that we use these days, they were pretty impressive races. We'll have to see going forward. If she can run better than she has in the first part of the year ... watch out."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader