Underrated Superstar: Donnie K. Von Hemel

Aug. 14, 2012

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How does one succeed in the racing business without a mega-stable and a handful of superstars to constantly parade before the fans?  Clearly this sport has turned in favor of “size matters”, it is a joy to follow the exploits of some of those who are still doing things in some of the old fashioned ways and succeeding.

To me the one person in racing who represents the standard we should all be targeting is Donnie K. Von Hemel. I first met him when he was a youngster, working in the shedrow for his namesake and Dad, Don, and alongside of his brother, Kelly.  Donnie has always been a quiet and unassuming sort, who took his work ethics and dry sense of humor from his mentor and father.  He also took a good leg up from Don and hit the ground running.  Since that time Donnie has conditioned many multiple graded stakes winner and millionaires.  He now handles the 2012 Oaklawn Handicap winner, Alternation, and may be on the cusp of his greatest success with that colt.

I was particularly impressed with how Donnie has applied his knowledge to bring out the best in Alternation.  Racing for one of Donnie’s key clients, Pin Oak Stable, Alternation encountered his string of problems along the way and only returned from a bit of a rest (another old fashioned idea which he has employed with his horses) to bring him back last weekend in the ungraded Governor’s Cup Stakes at Remington Park.

This choice of a comeback race was the mark of a Donnie K. Von Hemel trainee.  Donnie has been around Remington Park long enough to know that the stock is tough and it’s a good place for a horse to come back of a layoff.  He won’t be overmatched, but he should get something out of the race.  What he got was probably even more than Von Hemel had asked for, but turned out to be a very useful outing. He was tested throughout by another pretty nice horse, Prayer for Relief, from the mega barn of trainer Steve Asmussen.

Alternation got the best of his rival in the Remington race by a nose, but further gained by winning in his comeback effort and setting himself for a fall series of races which could bring him more accolades and all the more respect for his trainer who, to my knowledge, has never had a positive test, stewards ruling or even a speeding ticket.  I haven’t done complete research of the last two and I could be wrong, but I’m not aware that Von Hemel can be held at all in the same breaths as some of the more heralded, but less exemplary, members of the equine training community.

A review of the names of some of the horses which Donnie has trained in recent times includes a number which starred at various time at Oaklawn:  Caleb’s Posse, Euphony, Clever Trevor, Brownie Points, Mr. Ross, Bedanken, Bien Nicole, Yoursmineours and others.  There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have thought that Donnie’s greatest training accomplishment was running second to the great Zenyatta in the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap with Brownie Points.  On that occasion his runner finished in front of 2007 Eclipse Award winner, Ginger Punch.

Then here came 2011.  Caleb’s Posse started off the Oaklawn season with a win in the Smarty Jones Stakes, while Alternation was winning a key allowance race.  Caleb’s Posse, who ran a close second to Animal Kingdom in the race for the 2011 Eclipse Award at top three-year-old, continued to get the headlines, but Alternation was busy rebounding and nudging his way into the picture.  After an unfortunate starting gate incident prior to the Rebel Stakes and a fifth place finish in the Arkansas Derby, he was taken to Belmont Park where he finally got some publicity with a win in the Peter Pan Stakes.  When he didn’t finish off the season with a flare, finishing fourth in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga and the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, followed by a second in the Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park, it was time to lay him up and get him ready for Oaklawn.

Giving horses time off is one of the old fashioned ideas in the Von Hemel shedrows and in the case of Alternation, it appeared to be exactly the right prescription.  He responded by sweeping the Essex, Razorback and Oaklawn Handicaps at Oaklawn and followed up with a win in the Pimlico Special on Preakness weekend.  Following a disappointing fifth in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, he returned last weekend to show that he has the sharpness and appears ready to retake a spot at the head of the handicap division.  Many of the others which he’ll face in the Fall have been making every dance.  Alternation will be a lot fresher and you have to like his chances if he tries the Jockey Club Gold Cup and even tries to attack the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita against the runners with proven form over that surface.  What this son of Distorted Humor has going for him is the guiding hand and brain of Donnie K. Von Hemel.  Another thing I like is the Von Hemel has not been driven to pick a “name” jockey to handle his horse.  Luis Quinonez, who has been on many of Von Hemel’s top runners, will be back in the saddle for whatever confronts Alternation.  Once again it is the man of real standards, D.K. Von Hemel, who will make the good calls.

Many of us were sad to see that the unlucky Caleb’s Posse had to be retired recently, due to injury.  Donnie K. had done some of his most masterful work with that four-year-old and his running style allowed him to carry on effectively with the best in the racing world and not be in competition with Alternation to do so.  Caleb’s Posse lost too many photo finishes this year, including the Tom Fool and the Met Mile.  That, plus the finish in the Eclipse Award balloting, kept Donnie K. from reaping the kind of rewards he deserves.

Now I will be on the sidelines rooting for him and anything runs all the more.  There are few examples in the racing community more deserving of success than Donnie.  He is a family man with all the integrity one could have.  With any luck this is one person who manages to make it into the Racing Hall of Fame without having hundreds of horses at his hand.  He has come upon his success honestly.  He has also been fortunate because they didn’t throw away the mold when his grandparents created his Dad.  At Oaklawn we are very proud of their continuing success.

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