09/17/2004 12:00AM

Fast ones like Rocky River motivate Von Hemel

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The year was 1968, and Don Von Hemel, ready or not, was detaching himself from the known world. Von Hemel was mired in desolate southwest Kansas, working the same sprawling ranch where his father had labored in Von Hemel's own childhood.

"I had three kids, a horse trailer, and a car, and I owed on all of them," Von Hemel said. "I knew there had to be something better."

Fifteen minutes after uttering these words, Von Hemel - moving slower these days at 70 - made his way to a late-model Cadillac. He owns two homes now, and the three kids turned out right. In a career spanning five decades, Von Hemel has trained the winners of 2,451 horse races. Better yet, he has not sold his soul to get here. Speaking of Von Hemel, people readily produce a bygone word: gentleman.

"I can honestly say I've never seen him turn anyone down for a favor," said Donnie Von Hemel, Von Hemel's first son and second child, and now a nationally known trainer himself. "If a guy needed $20, needed $50, he'd never turn them down."

The way Von Hemel works and wins has attracted owners increasingly willing to spend. One of them, Don Peters, put up $220,000 to purchase a chestnut colt last April at a 2-year-old auction. His name is Rocky River, he has won his first two starts by open lengths, and probably will be favored Sunday in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity.

"When you come up with a good one - like we hope Rocky is - that makes it easier to come out in the morning," Von Hemel said.

A few years ago, Von Hemel was struck with aggressive prostate cancer. Chemotherapy didn't fully cure it, but the cancer has been controlled through hormone therapy. Every couple of months, Von Hemel takes a shot to the stomach. A hip replacement requires the use of a cane. Von Hemel has slowed, but he doesn't want to stop.

"Work is my life," he said, simple as that.

At the Roick ranch somewhere near Minter, Kansas, somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, work also was life. Von Hemel was one of six kids in a family scrambling for the middle class.

"We milked a lot of cows, did all kinds of work," he said.

Grown, Von Hemel found himself in this same world. He knew little beyond the rural plains, but some spark spurred him to take a chance. With no solid backing, and four horses - three of them maidens - he set out to be a trainer.

"I'd go out early and work mine, then get on horses for other people," Von Hemel recalled. "It was $1 a head to gallop, back then. I'd get on some of the rogues and make a little more."

Here were planted the seeds of success.

"When he came up, you did everything yourself," said Donnie Von Hemel. "You were the blacksmith, the gallop boy, and the groom. You did every facet of the job when you started out the way he started out. Doing that, that had to give him insights that other people don't have."

How did Von Hemel catch on? The usual - hard work, good fortune, a strong competitive streak.

"No matter what I've done, I've always wanted to be on top," Von Hemel said.

But his drive to succeed was contained by a strong sense of social obligation. Big winners at the track often breed resentment in peers, but Von Hemel stayed in good standing as he went from track to Midwest track in the 70's. Ak-Sar-Ben, Sunland Park, Detroit Race Course, Sportsman's Park, even the big spa meet at Oaklawn - Von Hemel won at all of them.

"I was on the track in Nebraska as a 20-year-old, and he was the big-time trainer then," said Chicago-based Hugh Robertson, who's in his 50's now. "He was one of the guys that was very successful, but he was a good guy, too."

Von Hemel followed the typical path, winning first with claimers, then getting higher-class stock starting in the late 70's. At some point, he made the transition from trainer-as-exercise-rider to trainer-as-manager, learning to listen to his riders, to evaluate a horse from the ground instead of on its back.

"He took a very pragmatic approach to the whole game," said Donnie Von Hemel, whose brother, Kelly, also is an established trainer. "He learned to have a rapport with the owner to get them to run a horse where it could win."

The 78-year-old Peters, Rocky River's owner, has been with Von Hemel for more than 16 years.

"I think he's a damn brilliant man - and a damn nice person," said Peters, an Iowan who prospered in the road construction business.

Peters remembers Von Hemel being struck with Rocky River when the two first saw him.

"We both liked him, but Don liked him a lot," Peters said.

Rocky River breezed fast at the sale, and unlike many 2-year-olds sold in training, he came out of it in good shape. After getting over a lingering cough, Rocky River was ready to go.

"He's naturally quick, and when you have one like that, you can start to get excited," said Von Hemel. "How fast can he be? How far can he go?"

Peters and Von Hemel have struck out before with horses as expensive as Rocky River. But even for men in their 70's, a fast 2-year-old stirs the blood.

"It's hard to sleep at night when you have a horse like this," said Peters.

Von Hemel right now sleeps by himself in a motel room not far from Arlington, his wife, Roylynn, manning the home front, just as she did when Von Hemel left for New Mexico, Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan - wherever racing took him.

"We racetrackers are all basically cut from the same cloth," Von Hemel said. "Some of us are just luckier than others."