By Jennifer Hoyt —-
Von Hemel Looks to Keep Lengthy Win Streak Alive
One constant the last four decades at Oaklawn has been trainer Don Von Hemel of Hot Springs.
Actually, he’s been more like a sure bet.
Von Hemel, 83, has at least one victory at every Oaklawn meeting since 1975, a lengthy streak he will try to extend with Cowboy U Know in Saturday’s first race.
“All I know is I try to win every time I went out there,” Von Hemel said before training hours Thursday morning. “Sometimes, I didn’t get it done. But it’s great feeling when you get it done.”
The streak began when Bold Trap, as the 3-2 favorite, captured an entry-level allowance sprint by a nose Feb. 15, 1975, under Danny Whited, still active today as a trainer.
“Bold Trap, boy, he was a nice horse,” Von Hemel said of his future multiple stakes winner.
Bold Trap was Von Hemel’s only Oaklawn winner in 1975. But since 1976, Von Hemel has amassed a hefty 425 victories in Hot Springs, including a personal-best 23 in 1984, according to Equibase, racing’s official data organization. He was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1981.
Von Hemel said he believes 1975 could have been his first season in Hot Springs after previously wintering at Fonner Park in Nebraska.
“I had some horses that looked like they needed to go other places, so we came,” Von Hemel said. “Been here ever since.”
Von Hemel said he bought a condominium in Hot Springs in 1983 and would live half the year in Arkansas and the other half in Omaha, Neb., home to Ak-Sar-Ben, then a juggernaut among racing venues in the country.
Von Hemel, a member of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, won 10 training titles at Ak-Sar-Ben (1978, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1994).
“We figured everything would be like that forever,” Von Hemel said. “Then racing stopped in Omaha.”
After Ak-Sar-Ben closed following the 1995 meeting, Von Hemel said he and wife Roylynn moved to Hot Springs permanently.
“I kept my home in Omaha for four or five years, thinking that something would happen,” Don Von Hemel said, referring to Ak-Sar-Ben. “It never did. Sold it and came down here. Money wasn’t any good in the bank, so I bought another house.”
Von Hemel said he and his wife own a condominium and a home, purchased in 2001, on Lake Hamilton.
Don Von Hemel said his sons, Donnie K. and Kelly, both successful trainers, live in the house during the Oaklawn meeting.
Cowboy U Know is one of 11 horses Don Von Hemel is scheduled to train at the meet. He is a 6-year-old half-brother to Now I Know, who won 6 of 7 career starts for Von Hemel, including the $50,000 Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at the 2012 Oaklawn meeting. Both are out of the unraced Now U Know.
Von Hemel has two other horses at Oaklawn out of Now U Know – First Alternate, who is scheduled to make her 3-year-old debut in Monday’s seventh race, and Girl Power, a 5-year-old mare.
Von Hemel also has Sonny Smack, an unraced 3-year-old half-brother to Smack Smack, the trainer’s multiple stakes winner of $982,159.
Sonny Smack should debut in the middle of the meet, Von Hemel said, while Smack Smack is expected to return to the trainer’s barn in the next few days following a lengthy freshening and should resurface late in the meet.
“I’ll win one,” Von Hemel said with a laugh. “I’ll make sure I win one.”
Von Hemel, who has never trained a millionaire, won two races at the 2017 Oaklawn meeting.
The Smarty Jones
Seven 3-year-olds are entered in Monday’s $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, Oaklawn’s first of four major preps for the Kentucky Derby.
Probable favorite Mourinho was flown Wednesday from Southern California for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has dominated Oaklawn’s 3-year-old prep series in recent years.
Mourinho has a 1-2-0 record from three lifetime starts, including a runner-up finish in the $100,000 Bob Hope Stakes (G3) Nov. 11 at Del Mar in his last start. Drayden Van Dyke, who grew up near Oaklawn and was the country’s champion apprentice jockey of 2014, is named to ride Mourinho from post 4.
Mourinho is scheduled to race in blinkers again Monday.
Also entered in the 1-mile Smarty Jones are Combatant, Lone Rock, Tap Daddy, Arched Feather, Navistar and Bode’s Maker. Combatant and Tap Daddy are from the barn of eight-time Oaklawn training champion Steve Asmussen. Navistar, a Dec. 16 maiden winner at Gulfstream Park for trainer Todd Pletcher, will be ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez. Asmussen had one-third of the nominees (12 of 36) to the Smarty Jones.
Probable post time for the Smarty Jones, the eighth of nine races, is 4:42 p.m. (Central).
Saturday’s nine-race card features a split first-level allowance/optional claimer for 3-year-olds at a mile (races 5 and 7), companion events to Monday’s $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes.
Saturday’s races could produce a starter, or starters, for the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 19, Oaklawn’s second of four major preps for the Kentucky Derby.
Nine horses are entered in the seventh race, including Higher Power, a half-brother to millionaire and 2012 Oaklawn Handicap winner Alternation for owner/breeder Pin Oak Stable (Josephine Abercrombie) and trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel.
Higher Power (by Medaglia d’Oro) enters his 3-year-old season with the same resume as Alternation did in 2011 for the same connections.
Both horses raced twice late in the Remington Park meeting at 2. Both horses debuted sprinting and finished third. Both horses won their next start around two turns.
“It wasn’t totally by plan, it just kind of worked out that way,” Von Hemel said. “I hope (Higher Power) gets to the same spot.”
Alternation finished fifth in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) in 2011, but was a three-time stakes winner at the 2012 Oaklawn meeting.
Following Higher Power’s maiden victory, Von Hemel said he decided to pass the $400,000 Springboard Mile Dec. 17 at Remington Park and await the Oaklawn meeting.
Von Hemel said Higher Power enters his 3-year-old campaign as a “very nice prospect” and is similar physically to Alternation, a robust son of Distorted Humor.
“He’s a good-looking horse,” Von Hemel said. “Maybe he’s not quite as tall, but may have a little more length. He’s still a gorgeous horse.”
Higher Power worked a half-mile in :51.40 Sunday in advance of his 3-year-old debut.
Also entered in the seventh race are Shortleaf Stable’s Lone Rock, a romping maiden winner Sept. 2 at Indiana Grand for trainer Will VanMeter, and New York Central, a $750,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sale purchase who is campaigned by WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club and SF Racing LLC and Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
New York Central, a gray son of Tapit, will be making his two-turn debut after breaking his maiden by 7 ¼ lengths Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs in his last start. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens is named to ride New York Central, whose second dam, Hold to Fashion, produced 2004 Oaklawn Handicap winner Peace Rules.
WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club and SF Racing LLC won the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) last year with unbeaten One Liner.
Among the entrants in Saturday’s fifth race are Bravazo, second in the $500,000 Breeders’ Futurity Stakes (G1) Oct. 7 at Keeneland for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas; Kingsville, third in the Springboard Mile for trainer Danny Pish; Ezmosh, sixth in the Breeders’ Futurity for trainer Brad Cox; and P R Radio Star, who will be making his two-turn debut after breaking his maiden by 12 ½ lengths Dec. 16 at Hawthorne in his last start for trainer Tom Swearingen.
Lone Rock is also entered in the Smarty Jones.
Oaklawn’s annual 50-cent corned beef sandwich promotion is Saturday. … Nominations to the $125,000 Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies Jan. 20 close Friday. … Trainer Paul Holthus of Hot Springs has 498 career victories, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. He has two horses entered Friday: Bud Ro in the first race and Shakedown in the second race. … Two-time Oaklawn stakes winner Marquee Miss ($100,000 Dixie Belle and $100,000 Martha Washington in 2016) is entered in Friday’s fifth race, an allowance/optional claiming sprint for older fillies and mares. Also entered is Kathballu, winner of last year’s $125,000 Spring Fever Stakes at Oaklawn. Marquee Miss was third in the race. … Hamazing Vision, who doesn’t have a right eye, is entered in Friday’s ninth race for trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel. A 3-year-old Arkansas-bred gelded son of Hamazing Destiny, Hamazing Vision is a half-brother to Ministry, winner of last year’s $100,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes at Oaklawn. Hamazing Vision finished second in his Dec. 8 career debut at Remington Park. … Inside Straight is the 5-2 program favorite for the $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile Handicap Saturday at Turf Paradise. Trainer Robertino Diodoro said the 2017 Oaklawn Handicap winner, who has had gate issues, will return to Hot Springs in he performs well in the mile turf race. … Ivan Fallunovalot is among five Oaklawn stakes winners entered in Sunday’s eighth race, which is a prep for the $125,000 King Cotton Stakes for older sprinters Feb. 3. Ivan Fallunovalot won the King Cotton in 2015 and 2016. Also entered are Apprehender (2013, 2014 King Cotton winner), Storm Advisory (2017 King Cotton), Rockshaw (2017 Gazebo) and Counterforce (2016 Bachelor). … Trace Creek, who gave trainer Kenny McPeek his first Oaklawn stakes victory in the $75,000 Arkansas Breeders’ for state breds in 2015, has been retired, trainer Will VanMeter said. Trace Creek, an 8-year-old homebred for John Ed Anthony of Hot Springs, also provided VanMeter with his biggest career victory to date in the $100,000 Hanshin Cup (G3) in 2016 at Arlington Park. The gelded son of Harperstown lost his final three career starts. “He just quit running,” VanMeter said. Trace Creek, who won 7 of 25 career starts and $330,265, could resurface as a stable pony, VanMeter said.