Witnessing the birth of a legend

Hall of Fame trainer sees positive impact on racing after derby

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Piedmont horse trainer Donny Von Hemel, pictured with daughter Tess and wife Rebecca, was at the Kentucky Derby to witness Rich Strike memorable win. He sees the impact of Rich Strike’s win along with owner and Yukon native Rick Dawson’s local ties as good for state horse racing. (Photo provided)

By Michael Pineda
Staff Writer

A buzz has surrounded horse racing since Rich Strike stormed out of nowhere to win the Kentucky Derby.

That buzz has been felt all the way to the Oklahoma metroplex and Yukon. Rich Strike’s owner Rick Dawson is an Edmond resident and business owner. He is also a former quarterback for the Yukon Miller football team in the 1970s.

Among the 150,000 watching the race was another Canadian County   resident, Donny Von Hemel of Piedmont. Von Hemel, a highly respected horse trainer and owner of Von Hemel Racing, described the crowd in Lexington as being in a state of shock following the race.

“Most people were trying to figure out who the heck it was,” he said.

At 80-1 odds, Rich Strike was the second biggest underdog to win the storied race. Von Hemel said there have been some similar stories with long shots winning occasionally, but it happens far less frequently in a race of the derby’s magnitude.

“Just the longshot getting into the race was a little bit of a story too,” Von Hemel said. “Up until the last scratch Friday morning, he was not in the race. He was a long shot. If you look at his past performances, it is hard to make a case for him winning the race.”

The pace was fast for the mile and a quarter, which can make many horses wilt, Von Hemel said. Rich Strike was able to negotiate a good path from the back and come out with the win.

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Despite being in the horse industry and in relative proximity, Von Hemel said he has not met Dawson but like many others has grown familiar with him since the race.

Von Hemel himself races horses in Kentucky, as well as Arkansas and Oklahoma. The industry itself had its struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic as track attendance took a hit. The fact it was accessible on the internet proved to be a shot in the arm.

“I think it has been pretty good, all things considered,” Von Hemel said. “Everyone was struggling in the pandemic.

“Horse racing was unique in that racing could continue without the crowd. In a lot of states, you can bet on racing on your phone and computer. That was one thing horse racing had going for it and I think racing had some new fans.”

Remington Park has had its share of ups and downs but has weathered its storms. Von Hemel said casino gaming has had a bit of an impact on the horse racing industry over the past 10 to 15 years.

“Racing has transformed into a ‘racino,’” he said. “That is pretty much in 90% of the states. To have successful racing, you have to have that. They basically complement each other.

“It has kind of helped racing and it has helped the state with receiving tax money,” Von Hemel said.

Von Hemel is a member of the Oklahoma Horse Racing Hall of Fame. He closed on a farm in Piedmont the same week Remington Park opened in 1988. Von Hemel was the first trainer to win more than 1,000 races at Remington Park. He has won more than 100 stakes victories at the facility.

During his career, Von Hemel can lay claim to more than $57 million in purse prizes, more than 2,000 wins and 300 stake wins. He has also trained more than seven millionaires.

In terms of local racing at Remington, Von Hemel described the experience as a personal one.

“We try to put a good product out,” he said. “As far as fans, horse racing has always been accessible to the fans. As a stranger, you can come up and ask me questions and I will do what I can to promote racing.”

Everyone loves an underdog story, and all eyes will be on Rich Strike to see if lightning strikes twice at Belmont in June. That interest will only be heightened in Oklahoma due to the local ties with Rick Dawson. There are also hopes Rich Strike can make an appearance at Remington Park in the fall.

“Local interest, whether it is in the form of newspaper or internet, is always a big deal,” Von Hemel said.

“A lot of things can happen, but in my opinion, there is a good chance they will get him to Remington Park for Oklahoma Derby Day.”

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