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.
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