Trainer Don Von Hemel Set to Retire at the End of Oaklawn

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

Contact: Jennifer Hoyt, or (501) 363-4305

Friday, April 28, 2023

Photo Credit – Don Von Hemel: Provide by the Von Hemel family

Trainer Don Von Hemel Set to Retire at the End of Oaklawn

In his case, “V” stood for victory.

Don Von Hemel of Hot Springs will retire May 6, final day of the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting, drawing the curtain on a 67-year career that saw him rise to legendary status in Nebraska and becoming one of the leading trainers in Oaklawn history.

Von Hemel, 88, was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1981 and its fifth-winningest trainer of all time with 444 victories through Sunday. Momma Mule, among Von Hemel’s final career starters, is entered in Friday’s first race at Oaklawn.

Oaklawn and the Arkansas division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association will honor Von Hemel in a ceremony following Saturday’s seventh race, the “Don Von Hemel Classic.” Oaklawn and the HBPA are each donating $500 in the name of Von Hemel and his wife Roylynn to the Arkansas Racetrack Chaplaincy.

Von Hemel served on the Arkansas HBPA board for more than 40 years, executive director Jeanette Milligan said.

“He is very dear to the HBPA,” Milligan said. “He wanted to help horsemen. He believed in our benevolence program a lot, and he was very proud of our medical clinic and us helping horsemen and the people that worked for him help pay their medical bills and dental bills. He thought that was very important. Just a very caring person about his fellow horsemen and the people that work on the backside.”

Von Hemel’s retirement has been brewing for several months. He’s continued to scale back his operation in recent years because of advancing age and to care for his wife of 63 years, Roylynn, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Von Hemel is down to five horses at Oaklawn, all homebreds for country music star Toby Keith’s Dream Walkin Farms. Keith is a longtime Von Hemel client.

“This year I thought was a strong tell, when he wouldn’t come out and watch them train and do all that stuff,” said Von Hemel’s youngest son, trainer Kelly Von Hemel. “I thought that kind of said that he was ready.”

Don Von Hemel’s numerous career highlights include:

● Ranking 57th in North American history in career victories with 2,568, through Wednesday, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.

● Winning a record seven consecutive training titles (1970-1976) at Fonner Park in Nebraska.

● Setting single-season records for victories at Fonner Park in 1972 (32) and 1975 (38).

● Winning at least one race at 44 consecutive Oaklawn meetings (1975-2018), among the longest streaks in track history. The streak started with Bold Trap Feb. 15, 1975.

● Capturing 10 training titles (1978, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1994) at Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska.

● Winning the 1981 Oaklawn training title.

● Winning a March 7, 1984, allowance race at Oaklawn with Win Stat, who set a world record for 1 mile and 70 yards (1:38.40).

● Winning the $100,000 Ak-Sar-Ben Oaks (G3) in 1994 at Ak-Sar-Ben and the $200,000 Falls City Handicap (G3) in 1995 at Churchill Downs with Mariah’s Storm for longtime client Thunderhead Farms (Iowans Bill and Margie Peters). Mariah’s Storm overcame a leg fracture as 2-year-old in 1993 – her comeback story inspired the 2005 film, “Dreamer” – to win 10 of 16 career starts and earn $724,895 before making an even bigger mark in the breeding shed as the dam of 2000 European Horse of the Year Giant’s Causeway, later a champion sire in the United States.

● Winning three Oaklawn stakes races, including the $75,000 Essex Handicap (G3) and $150,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) in 1997, with No Spend No Glow.

● Winning eight stakes races and almost $1 million with Smack Smack, a Grade 3 winner and Dream Walkin homebred.

● Being inducted into the Nebraska Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

“He’s a horseman,” said Don Von Hemel’s oldest son, trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel. “Just grew up around it and could do anything with the horse, ride them, anything. There were several times when I was growing up, we couldn’t get a horse to do something. He would just walk over there and they would do whatever it was. There’s just a manner around people that develops over time. His mind is just sharp. He doesn’t forget horses, doesn’t forget when he sees one. Patience, and just truly a horseman.”

A native of tiny Manter, Kan., Don Von Hemel cut his teeth under L.O. “Speck” Lane, a well-known local rancher and horseman, before he began training. Von Hemel saddled his first winner in 1956, according to Equibase, and, along with future Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, eventually became a force on the Nebraska circuit.

“They were very dominant for years and years,” Donnie K. Von Hemel said. “Van Berg was leading trainer for a bunch of years in a row (at Ak-Sar-Ben). Dad was the first guy that knocked him off there and then he was leading trainer for several years in a row.”

Don Von Hemel won his first race at Oaklawn Feb. 15, 1972, and continued to shift his winter focus to Arkansas throughout the decade. His 444 career victories at Oaklawn include 12 stakes, the last coming in 2012 with Now I Know in the $50,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old fillies. Von Hemel, in partnership, also bred and co-owned Now I Know, a Grade 3 winner who captured 6 of 7 career starts.

In addition to his racing achievements, Von Hemel was instrumental in helping launch the highly successful training careers of sons Donnie K. and Kelly.

“Here in the Midwest, we have the Don Von Hemel training tree,” Oaklawn Senior Vice President Eric Jackson said. “When you look back at all the people he has helped and who are in racing today because of him, including his two sons, we clearly have the Don Von Hemel training tree.”

Donnie K. Von Hemel is the 14th-winningest trainer in Oaklawn history (310 victories through Sunday) and a member of the Remington Park Hall of Fame. He has 2,245 career victories overall (No. 87 in North American history), the first coming in 1984, according to Equibase. Kelly Von Hemel has 74 career Oaklawn victories, but he targets Prairie Meadows because of its lucrative Iowa-bred program. A member of the Prairie Meadows Hall of Fame, Von Hemel has 1,572 career victories overall, the first coming in 1985.

Don Von Hemel and his sons would often tag-team horses because of locale. Donnie K., for example, also trained Mariah’s Storm. Sure Shot Biscuit earned the bulk of his $1,025,480 in career earnings for Kelly Von Hemel, but the Iowa-bred star was a 2000 allowance winner at Oaklawn for Don Von Hemel.

“He’s a legend, especially for us,” said Kelly Von Hemel, who shares Oaklawn’s Elocutionist barn with his father. “When I decided to quit college and do this, he immediately sent me out on my own, gave me horses, put them in my name. He pushed us and helped us out as much as he possibly could.”

Don Von Hemel and his wife purchased a condominium in Hot Springs in the early 1980s and would live half the year in Arkansas and the other half in Omaha, Neb., home to Ak-Sar-Ben, at the time, among the country’s most successful racing venues. After Ak-Sar-Ben closed in 1995, Von Hemel and his wife moved to Hot Springs permanently.

“He’s always liked to play cards,” Kelly Von Hemel said. “He’s been a member of the (Hot Springs) Elks Club for 30, 40 years. He’ll stay in Hot Springs. He’s not going anywhere as long as mom’s here.”

Don Von Hemel has two victories at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting. His Oaklawn stable is overseen by longtime assistant Wade Hinzman. Donnie K. Von Hemel said he will inherit his father’s handful of remaining runners, adding they could go to Churchill Downs or Prairie Meadows after the Oaklawn meeting ends.

Proxy after winning the Oaklawn Park Handicap with Jockey Joel Rosario

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

Rosario Enjoys Record-Tying Day at Oaklawn

Joel Rosario’s impeccable timing resulted in a record-tying stakes sweep last Saturday at Oaklawn, and Jockey of the Week honors (April 17-23) in voting by a panel of racing experts. The award recognizes riding accomplishments by members of the Jockeys' Guild, an organization that represents more than 1,000 active, retired and permanently disabled riders in the United States.

Rosario’s three stakes victories – equaling a single-day Oaklawn best by a jockey – were the inaugural $150,000 Valley of the Vapors for 3-year-old fillies aboard favored Merlazza ($3.20) for trainer Brad Cox, $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses aboard Proxy ($9.40) for trainer Michael Stidham and the $200,000 Bath House Row for 3-year-olds aboard Red Route One ($6) for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

“Thanks to everybody for the opportunity and the winners,” Rosario said following Red Route One’s victory. “Really happy for everything. My agent (Ron Anderson) did a good job. Good day.”

Rosario joined Hall of Famer Pat Day (April 12, 1997) and Florent Geroux (April 2, 2022) as the only jockeys in Oaklawn history with three stakes victories on a single card. All three horses ridden by Rosario grabbed the lead in the shadow of the wire, with Merlazza prevailing by a length, Proxy by a head and Red Route One by a head. Asmussen (868) became Oaklawn’s all-time winningest trainer with Red Route One’s victory. On April 15 at Oaklawn, Rosario and late-running Clairiere collared favored Secret Oath near the wire to win the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares by a neck. Clairiere is also trained by Asmussen.

“He’s on,” Asmussen said after Red Route One’s victory. “I mean when Joel’s on, there’s nothing like it. I don’t care where you’re at or what the level. When Joel’s on, there’s nothing like it.”

Rosario’s triple pushed his career Oaklawn victory total to 62, including 18 stakes. Rosario was honored with an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding jockey of 2021. Riding regularly for the first time at Oaklawn in 2021-2022, Rosario won 27 races to finish eighth in the standings. Rosario has a 7-6-3 mark from 34 mounts at the 2022-2023 meeting and purse earnings of $1,965,426.

Rosario, boosted by Clairiere’s Apple Blossom victory, was also named Jockey of the Week (April 10-16). Rosario shared the latest weekly honor with Declan Cannon and Juan Hernandez.