Donnie K. Von Hemel
Year Inducted: 2011
Born in 1961 in Manter, Kansas, Donnie Von Hemel grew up around horse racing, the son of prominent trainer Don Von Hemel. While it wasn’t set in stone that he would be involved in the sport, it was difficult for him to ignore doing what he knew and what he loved.
Von Hemel graduated at Fort Hays State in Kansas with a degree in accounting in 1983. A year later, in the summer of 1984, he won his first career race at Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, Neb. That victory was the genesis of an outstanding professional career that would not be spent at a desk.
After spending the mid-1980s racing throughout the Midwest, Von Hemel made a life-altering decision. As the fall of 1988 approached Von Hemel was technically without a place to call home. His residence was wherever he was racing the horses under his care.
Remington Park was nearing reality and Von Hemel decided to put down roots, even though no one knew what was in store over the long haul for the new racetrack. “We had a number of horses owned by Oklahomans and we never had the opportunity to race in Oklahoma. We looked at the type of facility that was going up in Remington Park and felt confident that buying a property here was the way to go.”
Von Hemel closed on his Piedmont, Okla. farm the same week that Remington Park opened in 1988. The first few years were tremendous with plenty of wins, including two Oklahoma Derbies, both for a couple of his Oklahoma owners. The first derby score is still counted by Von Hemel as his most important win in the state.
Clever Trevor, owned by longtime Von Hemel client Don McNeill of Edmond, Okla., won the inaugural Oklahoma Derby in 1989 (known then as the Remington Park Derby). The race catapulted the horse’s career, and that of his trainer, to great heights. The Oklahoma-bred gelding would follow the win in his home state with a second in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, earning himself a run in the Kentucky Derby where he finished 13th.
Clever Trevor went on to win many major stakes races that summer, including the Grade 1 Arlington Classic in Chicago. Von Hemel then sent his star out to perhaps his best race, though in defeat. Clever Trevor gave Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer all he could handle in that year’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga, finishing second, beaten just three lengths after leading for most of the 1-1/4 miles. Clever Trevor would go on to earn more than a million dollars, racing into the fall of 1992 before retiring to the Robin’s Nest farm of Von Hemel and his wife and daughter, Robin and Tess, in Piedmont.
Success with Clever Trevor spawned more business with clients who recognized Von Hemel as a rising star in horse racing, even if he was based in Oklahoma and not at one of the sport’s more well-known venues on either coast or in Kentucky. Von Hemel athletes earned more than $1.6 million for their trainer in 1989, led by Clever Trevor who accounted for more than a million dollars by himself. The stable has posted earnings well above $1 million every year since, 1991, with 2011 and 2012 as the best with more than $2.8 million accumulated each year.
Over the years Von Hemel has campaigned many greats, both at Remington Park and beyond. Included among the many: Bien Nicole, Evansville Slew, Mariah’s Storm, Burbank, Glaring, Brownie Points, Bedanken and a filly named Explosive Girl who helped get Von Hemel early notoriety in the 1980s with multiple scores at Ak-Sar-Ben. The career success has been noted nationally as Thoroughbred Times honored Von Hemel as one of North America’s 10 best trainers in 1996.
Von Hemel continues to nurture horses at Remington Park and then move them to a national stage to win Graded Stakes races. Both Alternation and Caleb’s Posse won races in 2010 at Remington Park. Then in 2011, both scored huge stakes wins in New York; Alternation in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park and Caleb’s Posse winning the two biggest sprint races at Saratoga including the Grade 1 King’s Bishop, before going on to win the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile that fall at Churchill Downs.
Suddenbreakingnews helped return Von Hemel to the Kentucky Derby for the first time since his attempt with Clever Trevor. After winning the race named after Von Hemel’s all-time best, Suddenbreakingnews was second in the 2015 Springboard Mile. He then won the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park before running fifth in the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
If it is a Remington Park racing record, Von Hemel has most likely owned it at some point. He became the first trainer to win 1,000 races at Remington Park when Sweet Posse broke her maiden on Oct. 13, 2016. A winner of 12 seasonal training titles in Oklahoma City, Von Hemel is the lone trainer with more than 100 stakes victories at Remington Park, counting 176 through the 2018 season. Von Hemel is the only trainer in Remington Park history to win more than one Oklahoma Derby. Also saddling Queen’s Gray Bee (1991) and Going Ballistic (2007), in addition to Clever Trevor.
Von Hemel entered the 2019 season at Remington Park with more than 2,100 career wins and earnings of nearly $60 million. Plenty of victories, and dollars, to keep track of through accounting principles learned in college.