11/19/2007 12:00AM

A family tradition continues

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Dustin Orona Photography
Going Ballistic will try to give Donnie Von Hemel a second win in the Clark Handicap.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Von Hemel Family Trainers have never achieved the kind of renown that, say, the Von Trapp Family Singers got from the movies more than 40 years ago, but in the insular world of horse racing, they are famous in their own right. Don, the 73-year-old patriarch, long ago left his imprint on tracks throughout America's breadbasket, and sons Donnie, 46, and Kelly, 42, have taken the family legacy a generation deeper while campaigning at tracks from Texas to Minnesota.

On this side of the Mississippi, however, they aren't quite as well known, although all have spent their fair share of time in Chicago, Kentucky, and other tracks farther east. Clever Trevor might have been the best horse ever trained by a Von Hemel - he was second to Easy Goer in the 1989 Travers at Saratoga for Donnie - unless your vote is for Mariah's Storm, whom Donnie sent out to defeat Serena's Song at Turfway Park in 1995 before she attained even greater fame as the dam of Giant's Causeway and the basis for the movie "Dreamer."

Another chance has arisen for the family to further its name, and once again it is Donnie who is running up the flag. The Clark Handicap, the annual highlight of the fall meet at Churchill Downs, should be a litmus test for a 3-year-old named Going Ballistic, a $4,000 yearling purchase who blipped onto the racing radar in September by winning the Super Derby but who otherwise has never been considered among the top echelon of an extraordinary crop headed by Curlin, Street Sense, Hard Spun and others.

Yet when he lines up against older horses Friday in the 133rd running of the $500,000 Clark, Going Ballistic has an opportunity to begin filling a huge vacuum created by the recent retirements of many of the sport's stars. Going Ballistic, a gray Florida-bred by Lite the Fuse, is one of about 10 horses expected for the Grade 2 race.

"I hope he can step up and begin filling those big shoes," Von Hemel said early this week from Oklahoma City. "But we've got a lot of questions to answer. There's a lot of room at the top right now, so I'm sure everybody's kind of got the same hopes that we do."

Going Ballistic was well beaten by Curlin early in the year at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Rebel and fifth in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby.

"When we left out of Hot Springs with him, we thought we were getting less out of him than we thought we could," said Von Hemel.

But in his seven races since the April 14 Arkansas Derby, Going Ballistic has improved steadily and has never finished worse than third. After rolling past Grasshopper to win the Sept. 22 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, Going Ballistic posted a last-to-first triumph in the Oct. 21 Oklahoma Derby, earning a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 101.

"He really has progressed as year has gone on," said Von Hemel. "If he were to run big again Friday, we'd have to think about some of the major races for older horses in Hot Springs next winter."

Going Ballistic was purchased at auction in January 2005 by contractor Mike Kindred and his wife, Mary. Despite a sprinter's pedigree, the colt showed almost immediately that he needed more distance, and although he has raced periodically on turf, Von Hemel believes the best situation is 1 1/8 miles on the dirt - the same conditions as the Super Derby, Oklahoma Derby, and Clark.

"That's one of the main reasons we're in the Clark," he said.

Going Ballistic arrived here last Friday night, and his trainer will travel to Louisville the night before the race. Meanwhile, Don Von Hemel, who raised his two sons and an older daughter, Pam, in southwest Kansas and currently has his stable at Hawthorne in Chicago, will spend Thanksgiving at what has become the family homestead in Hot Springs. And then he will make sure he is in front of a television the next afternoon when the Clark is run.

"I'd rather see these kids win one as win one myself," said Don Von Hemel, a trainer for more than 50 years. "Every time they run a horse, I watch. If they ask for any advice, I give it. If not, I keep my mouth shut."

Kelly Von Hemel put the family in the racing spotlight for much of this year with the standout sprinter Miss Macy Sue, while also registering his 1,000th career win. Donnie Von Hemel, who won the 1992 Clark with Zeeruler, said he and his father and brother are thankful for all their success in a sport that is inextricably entwined with their lives.

"We've all been very fortunate," he said. "We like to keep it moving along. Hopefully we can get it done in the Clark."