Wisener: A veterans day as Von Hemel, Vance win at Oaklawn Park

By Bob Wisener/Special to HRN
February 11, 2020 11:25am
Wisener: A veterans day as Von Hemel, Vance win at Oaklawn Park
Photo: Coady Photography

It was a special Sunday at Oaklawn Park for two of the track’s past training champions, one in his 80s and the other nearing that milestone age.

Don Von Hemel and David Vance are two of Oaklawn's true training veterans. Von Hemel, at 85, is the elder Sunshine Boy locally by a nod over Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who turned 84 in September. Vance reaches 80 in August and, like Von Hemel, with sons Donnie and Kelly, competes against a family member, son Tommy, resuming his career in 2016.

On a gray afternoon under increasingly threatening skies, two gray-haired trainers visited the Larry Snyder Winner's Circle for the first time this season. For Von Hemel, 0-for-27 at Oaklawn last year, it marked the first time since the enclosure was named in honor of the late Oaklawn jockey and steward.

Von Hemel saddled Dash Goff's Captain Out to victory by 3 1/2 lengths in an $85,000 race for Arkansas-bred maiden 3-year-olds, going six furlongs in 1:11.62. The Flat Out gelding had Walter De La Cruz wearing the silks of another longtime local patron.

Oilman Gene Goff, Dash's father, raced Nodouble, whose many stakes victories for Fayetteville, Arkansas-based Verna Lea Farm include the 1968 Arkansas Derby. Purses have skyrocketed since Nodouble -- sired by Noholme, whom Gene Goff imported from Australia -- earned $846,479, still tops among Arkansas-bred horses. Asked recently what Nodouble (who died in 1990 at age 25) might earn now, Dash Goff said "several million."

Captain Don, the morning line favorite, won at program odds, 3-1, paying $8.20. Kiss More's triumph two races later was more surprising.

Stewart Elliott, the 2004 Kentucky- and Arkansas Derby-winning rider of Smarty Jones, booted home the 4-year-old More Than Ready maiden filly by 2 1/4 lengths at 32-1 odds. Paying $66, Kiss More bested six other maidens going a fast-rated mile in 1:39.24. Carl Pollard, a former Humana Inc. executive and Churchill Downs Inc. chairman, owns the filly.

Vance's biggest training victory came in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs with the Pollard-owned Caressing, that year's Eclipse Award winner among 2-year-old fillies. Caressing raced for Hermitage Farm, Pollard purchasing the Goshen, Kentucky, nursery following the death of its original owner, Warner L. Jones Jr.

Vance won four Oaklawn titles in the 1970s heyday of owner Dan Lasater, a Little Rock bondsman who won three Eclipse Awards as a horseman in a business career he launched with a string of steakhouses. With 50 victories in the 50-day Oaklawn season of 1974, Vance set a local record that stood until 2003 when the late Cole Norman had 71 victories in a 49-day campaign. He also was Oaklawn's champion trainer in 1972, 1973 and 1976.

Vance has been confined to a wheelchair since a 2007 automobile accident en route to Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky, to tend to his stable of horses. Hydroplaning on a wet road, he suffered a crushed C-4 vertebrae and torn ligaments in his neck.

In a 2008 Bloodhorse story, Vance was quoted: "I couldn't straighten out, the truck flipped, and I hit a concrete wall. All I kept thinking was 'please, no rocks come flying through this windshield and break my chest."

Whereas Vance won six Oaklawn races last year, Von Hemel comes off his first Oaklawn season without a victory since 1975. Von Hemel had a meet-high 19 victories in 1981, and a picture of him receiving the championship trophy from then-racing secretary Frank Arsenault appears in Oaklawn's current media guide.

Although lesser known than some of his local stakes winners including No Spend No Glow, Win Stat set a mile-and-70-yard world record of 1:38 2-5 at Oaklawn March 7, 1984. Three other track records still stand from the first season that Oaklawn introduced one-mile racing, with start and finish lines at the sixteenth-mile pole. Wild Again and Althea's shared nine-furlong clocking of 1:46 4-5 lasted three years until champion Snow Chief went 1:46 3-5 in the 1987 Oaklawn Handicap. In that Oaklawn no longer cards races at the distance, Win Stat's local mile-and-70-yard mark may be safe.

The soft-spoken Von Hemel is respected everywhere he goes, especially in Arkansas (he has long owned a home in Hot Springs) and Nebraska (once dominating the standings at the former Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha). Sons Donnie and Kelly carry on the family tradition, Donnie saddling his first winner of the current Oaklawn meeting last week.

"All I know is I try to win every time I went out there," Don was quoted in a feature story before the 2018 Oaklawn season. "Sometimes, I didn't get it done. But it's a great feeling when you get it done."


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