Debbie Kepitis rocketing to stardom

23 February 2024 Written by Patrick Bartley

Debbie Kepitis and her family’s legacy in Australian breeding and racing spans generations are making an impact on the sport. While her ownership of the legendary Winx elevated her to the pinnacle of racing success, the recent triumphs of Riff Rocket in the 2023 G1 Penfolds Victoria Derby and now the G3 CS Hayes Stakes have given her even more joy in horse racing. With eyes now set on the upcoming G1 Australian Guineas, we take a look at Riff Rocket’s journey so far.

For race winners, the mounting yard at racecourses is a place of a jubilation. And although she is no stranger to the winner’s circle, Debbie Kepitis had to endure an agonising few minutes’ wait for her horse’s number to be announced after the Group 1 Penfolds Victoria Derby – an eternity for connections. When Riff Rocket, with James McDonald aboard, was eventually confirmed the winner, the Sydney businesswoman erupted in joy.

Kepitis, the daughter of Bob Ingham and niece of Jack Ingham, stands as a testament to a lineage that not only conquered the global poultry market but also played a pivotal role in architecting one of the most substantial strings of racehorses in Australia. The brothers bred and campaigned notable horses like Octagonal (NZ), Lonhro, and Sweet Embrace, just to name a few.

Growing up around Woodlands Stud and the racing industry, Kepitis learned about breeding by osmosis, although she initially charted a different course. While Bob and Jack continued to influence races across Australia, she focused on raising her three daughters in Sydney, replicating the nurturing environment she experienced. Her mother showed unwavering support to her father, allowing him to steer the ship in building the esteemed Ingham empire – both in poultry and horses.

While there was no pressure to join the family business, Kepitis eventually fell under its spell.

“In 2003, I noticed that a few of my cousins were starting to get interested in racing, and I thought I might put my toe in the water and have a try. I was aware it was tough, hard, and required strong opinions, so I began acquiring broodmares.

Debbie Kepitis loves sharing the business with her family, including her daughters.

“I think balance is the criteria and you must follow a financial line, so I would sell two or three and keep two or three – that was the process of balancing the books.”

Her hard work paid off, and eventually the family business grew another generation, with her daughters joining her. While Ingham Racing operates in collaboration with her siblings, Kepitis manages Woppitt Bloodstock alongside her husband Paul and daughters Alinta, Lara and Talia. Woppitt Bloodstock is evolving into a progressively commercial enterprise, serving as a complement to the breed-to-race focus of the Ingham operation.

“Having my daughters actively involved in the business is terribly satisfying,” she said. In an interview after the Penfolds Victoria Derby, Debbie and two of her daughters reflected on the journey of witnessing Derby winner Riff Rocket’s growth from a foal, knowing its parents, and being intimately familiar with every aspect of its existence.

Kepitis described winning the race as a “pinnacle” moment, made even more special by the involvement of her daughters.

Sired by the stallion American Pharoah out of the dam Missile Coda, Riff Rocket was foaled, raised and educated at Coolmore Stud. Missile Coda comes from the lineage of Rain Affair, a sprinter with multiple Group victories, and traces her ancestry directly to Rainbird, the Melbourne Cup winner in 1945. Riff Rocket is now the eighth Group 1 winner, and the first in Australia, for the Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, which was brought to Australia for breeding purposes and spent five seasons here.

In the days following the win, Kepitis was a little more restrained, expressing that a Derby victory, while immensely satisfying, does not guarantee future success. “I always keep my feet on the ground. Riff Rocket is a great result as he’s a home-grown product of our business. Two starts before his Derby win, we noticed he had an excellent finishing burst, a point not lost on Chris Waller,” she acknowledged.

She recognises that the Derby triumph, though an outstanding addition to his CV, does not serve as a golden pathway to further victories on the Australian calendar. “Yes, he’s a very good horse, but we’ll take it step by step. Our guidance with Chris Waller is crucial because the man is a genius. I don’t say that lightly; I truly believe his photographic recall and training skills are outstanding,” she said.

While Riff Rocket’s Derby win was so special because she shared it all with her husband and daughters, it is difficult to compare to the ride of a lifetime that she had with Winx. Alongside a small group of owners, Kepitis watched in amazement as the brilliant mare secured 37 victories from 43 starts, including 25 Group 1 successes, accumulating a staggering $26.4 million in prizemoney. “That ownership was on a different level. She came in for world acclaim, being the best racehorse of her time. We didn’t just own her; we shared her ownership with the Australian public who clamoured to see her performances, regardless of where she raced, when she raced, who she was up against.And we talk of Chris Waller. Yes, Chris was the person in the background spending night and day keeping Winx at her very best. He was there whenever the smallest concern arose, and that’s what makes him a truly great trainer,” she fondly recalled.

Anticipating the next autumn, Kepitis looks forward to Riff Rocket and her team of racehorses, including the offspring of those that have been sold, do battle.

And as the sons and daughters of the mighty Winx loom on the horizon, one can’t help but suspect a resurgence of joy in the Flemington mounting yard in the near future.