Go ahead, ask Donnie Von Hemel about the first Saturday in May. Just do it. Ask him.
“Well, that’s a long way down the road. It could all change tomorrow,” Von Hemel said. “We’ll just do what we can right now.”
That was the veteran trainer’s response to looking at the Kentucky Derby with Suddenbreakingnews, a few days after the son of Mineshaft upset the Southwest Stakes Feb. 15 at Oaklawn Park.
If you know Von Hemel, it was the expected response.
Owned by Samuel Henderson, trained by Von Hemel and ridden by Luis Quinonez, Suddenbreakingnews rallied from 14th and last to draw off and win by 2 3/4 lengths. Passing the eighth pole, third-choice Whitmore looked home free. Then he wasn’t. Like flipping a pancake, it was over in strides.
“I don’t think I was shocked, I thought both horses I had in the race had a big chance, not shocked that he won, maybe a little surprised how he did it,” said Von Hemel, who also trained sixth-place finisher Synchrony. “You’re looking at the fractions, although it wasn’t suicidal fractions it was fast enough on that track, that they would have to come back to him some. At the three-eighths pole, you could see he was going to make an impact on the race. Now, Luis said he knew at the quarter pole. I wasn’t real confident until about the eighth pole. In the end, he was drawing away from them.”
Suddenbreakingnews arrived at Von Hemel’s barn in May of his 2-year-old season, sore shins delayed his debut and he wound up making five starts from August to December at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – not exactly a pipeline for Derby hopefuls. He won two of those five starts, finishing his 2-year-old season with a second in the Remington Springboard Mile in December. Von Hemel decided to skip the Smarty Jones, the first 3-year-old stakes at Oaklawn Park, and aim at the Southwest.
“We just had to take our time with him. We got him started at Remington, as he started doing more and more in the morning, he sure looked like a two-turn horse and acted like one. Really, we started liking him more and more and then once we started running him, he just got better every time we led him over,” Von Hemel said. “I thought he had run enough through the fall, we had gained some experience, I was all right with skipping the first race there at Oaklawn and just targeting the Southwest, Mr. Henderson was good with that too, the horse took care of me.”
Like an ice pack on a hung-over forehead.
Von Hemel, a Kansas-born Midwest mainstay who has trained more than 2,000 winners including Caleb’s Posse, Alternation and Clever Trevor, based his entire string of 36 horses at Oaklawn Park for the winter. Asked to compare Suddenbreakingnews to one of his other horses – past or present – Von Hemel struggled.
“I don’t know, he’s very unique. The type of horse he is, I don’t really have one who I could draw a close comparison to,” Von Hemel said. “He’s pretty good to train, he’s a gelding, but he will bite you when you go in to take a look at him, he’s right there in your hip pocket going after you. He’s a lean, long-legged horse, has a good stride on him. I think the further he goes, the more it will be to his advantage.”
Which leads the question back to the Derby.
“I’m a one-race guy, so right now, it’s the Rebel,” Von Hemel said of the March 19 stakes. “Oh, everybody dreams, everybody dreams, but I don’t want to put any more pressure on the horse, or the crew, or the rider, or anybody, let’s just look at one race and make sure we’re doing our best to be good on that day.”