(Originally published in the November 26, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions
at the bottom of the column.)
Donnie K. Von Hemel has been winning races for a long time—lots of them. With 1,858 wins and more than $43.6 million in purse earnings through Nov. 15, the 50-year-old has been a high percentage trainer ever since he took his license out in 1984.
But being based at Remington Park in Oklahoma City—where he is the racetrack’s all-time leader by wins—Von Hemel is a little off the beaten path of the major racing circuits. You might say he has been a big fish in a small pond for more than 25 years. So despite all of his success, it took a thunderous stretch run from Caleb’s Posse in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs for many people to take notice.
An Oklahoma native who regularly sports a cowboy hat, Von Hemel is humble as the day is long. You will never hear him sing his own praises, but he does admit that it is finally nice to have a lifetime of hard work pay off on the sport’s largest stage.
“You always hope to have a horse like this that will confirm to your clients that you can get the job done,” Von Hemel said. “And maybe it will also open up the eyes of other people looking for a new trainer that you are capable. Hopefully, we’ll be able to turn this win into some other nice horses.
“The nicest and most humbling thing about the whole experience is how many people were watching, cheering, and pulling for me. That was pretty special.”
Though Von Hemel graduated with an accounting degree from Fort Hays University in Kansas, he always knew his career path would involve horses. He learned the art of training from his father, Don Von Hemel, who has won more than 2,400 races in his career and is still an active trainer at age 77. The elder Von Hemel advised Donnie to choose another career path, but that fell on deaf ears. Donnie was hooked from the start, as was his younger brother, Kelly, who is also a successful trainer on the Midwest circuit.
“I wanted to make sure I got my degree, but I knew I always wanted to be a trainer,” said Donnie, who counts his father, Caleb’s Posse’s co-owner/breeder Don McNeill, and Pin Oak Stud’s owner Josephine Abercrombie as the biggest influences on his career.
Von Hemel has been based at Remington Park since it opened in 1998. He moves his stable of 40 horses to Arlington Park in the summer and Oaklawn Park in the winter. Prior to Caleb’s Posse, he was probably best-known for training Clever Trevor, also bred and owned by McNeill. The son of Slewacide gave Von Hemel his first grade I victory in the 1989 Arlington Classic, won the inaugural Remington Park Derby that year, and earned more than $1.3 million in his career. The 25-year-old gelding lives with Von Hemel and his wife, Robin, at their Piedmont, Okla., farm. The couple has one daughter, Tess.
“He is a wonderful horse; he’s at the top of the list,” said Von Hemel of Clever Trevor, who was also second in the 1989 Travers Stakes (gr. I) to Easy Goer. “Explosive Girl was also one of my favorites because she was the first stakes winner I was fortunate enough to train (1987).”
In all, Von Hemel has conditioned 30 graded stakes winners including Alternation, who won this year’s Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park; Going Ballistic, the 2007 Super Derby (gr. II) victor; and See How She Runs, a grade I winner he trained for Pin Oak. Von Hemel also is a regular trainer for country music star Toby Keith, their most recent top horse being Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile winner and graded stakes-placed Sherriff Cogburn.
As for Caleb’s Posse, the bay colt has won four graded stakes this year and will head into 2012 as one of the top returning older horses in the country. He may give Von Hemel his first Eclipse Award winner when votes are tallied at the end of the year.
“We felt from the time he arrived in the summer of 2010 that he had some talent,” Von Hemel said. “It was fun finding out along the way his best way to run, distance-wise and style-wise. I’m glad we got it figured out.
“I don’t want to sound too bold, but he’s got as good a résumé as any 3-year-old out there.”