Kansas-born and -raised by a Nebraska Horse Racing Hall of Famer, and reared among the best breeders and trainers in the Midwest, Donnie K. Von Hemel could have gone anywhere – but he went all in on Oklahoma in 1988 when the DeBartolo family decided to build Remington Park in Oklahoma City. Less than a year later, the gamble for both families paid off in spades.
“When I moved to Oklahoma, we had a very special Oklahoma-bred horse called Clever Trevor,” says Von Hemel, with his trademark humility – Clever Trevor was special, indeed, but so was his trainer. The thoroughbred became the first Oklahoma Derby winner in 1989, and eventually a million-dollar horse – the first of a career seven for Von Hemel. Clever Trevor went on to race the Kentucky Derby, and Von Hemel went on to train horses with 11,331 starts and more than 2,000 career wins totaling nearly $58 million in earnings. Today, Von Hemel is the all-time leading trainer at Remington Park, which is his home base, where he has more than 1,000 wins. He was elected to the Remington Park Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Oklahoma Racing Hall of Fame in 2012. He joined the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission (OHRC) in 2017, and is no doubt part of the reason Oklahoma’s equine industry has grown into a $3.6 billion boon for the state, generating more than $100 million annually in state and local taxes.
“Commissioner Von Hemel brings a lifetime of knowledge about the industry to the commission,” says OHRC Executive Director Kelly Cathey, adding that in Oklahoma, there are now 4.2 million acres of farms with 269,700 horses, roughly 14,100 of which are in the racing and breeding industry. Each horse generates $34,700 in economic impact with 50 jobs per 100 horses. “He is well regarded for his honesty and integrity and serves as a role model for trainers.”
That’s what it’s all about for Von Hemel, first and foremost: doing right by the horse. Clever Trevor lived another 24 years after his retirement at the same Piedmont home Von Hemel and his wife, Robin, bought all those years ago. Von Hemel currently serves on the Thoroughbred Retirement Program Committee that disseminates Oklahoma-bred funds to nonprofit retirement and retraining organizations.
Donnie K. Von Hemel’s Thoroughbred Spirit
“To me, the most important thing to being in horse racing is just the love of the horses,” Von Hemel says.
Their brute strength and gentle spirits, their mind-boggling athletic prowess and work ethic, the way no two are alike, he says, just like people.
He adds, “Part of the challenge with horses is figuring out the personality he has. His mental outlook, his physical abilities and what’s the best way to train him to allow him to be successful.”
Success is measured in different ways, after all. Not every horse can be a Breeders Cup winner like Caleb’s Posse in 2011. Little Performer, for example, he remembers most fondly, not for any particular win, but because “you knew he was going to give you every ounce of effort he had, and was just the neatest horse to be around.” And although not everyone who loves and works with horses gains the accolades Von Hemel has earned, he credits the scores of stable staff and his close relationships with owner-clients for his success for more than 25 years.
“It really becomes a partnership with the people you’re working for because you both have the same goals, you both have the same dreams and that’s something so rewarding you get to share,” he says. “Add on the sporting aspect, the competition and thrill you can’t get very many other places, and there’s just no other feeling like it. It’s been a very rewarding career.”