01/12/2012 1:46PM

Hovdey: Eclipse dinner could be big night for Caleb's Posse and Von Hemel

Barbara D. Livingston
"It would mean a lot if he wins," Donnie Von Hemel said of Caleb's Posse, a finalist for two Eclipse Awards.

There is an everlasting appeal about the Eclipse Awards process that allows for the relatively unsung to take a well-deserved turn in the spotlight. And in every case, it’s a horse who took them there. On Monday night in Beverly Hills, the tradition will be renewed, when the 41st Eclipse Awards dinner plays back the brightest notes of the 2011 racing season.

For those who take comfort in the familiar, there will be plenty of the sport’s readily identifiable names and faces to go around, particularly among such front-line horsemen as Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, Bill Mott, Graham Motion, Larry Jones, Kiaran McLaughlin, Michael Matz, and Dale Romans. They’ve all got a stake in Monday night’s action, and they’ve all been there before.

But who’s that over there at the Amazombie table? Bill Spawr has been a rock among California trainers since the 1970’s, when went out on his own after working for the widely respected Joe Manzi. He has coddled and cajoled just about every class of Thoroughbred known to man, run an operation second to none, and now, at 72, Spawr’s got a shot at his first Eclipse Award champion with his winner of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

[MORE: 2011 Eclipse Awards finalists, with DRF profiles]

Those who know Florida’s Bill Kaplan are not the least bit surprised their man will be in the room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Musical Romance is the reason, she of the old-timey, 14-race campaign crowned by a comprehensive score in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Kaplan, 65, has spent his 30 years as a trainer combing sales for bargains and putting people in the game. Now, there could finally be a Eclipse Award with his name attached.

Don’t look for Don Warren to be cutting a rug once the dance band begins to play later in the evening. He has had back trouble lately, a by-product of four decades working at close range with the horses of California’s fabled Johnston family. But if Acclamation’s name is read Monday night as either the outstanding older male or male turf horse, Warren, 60, could be floating on air in celebration of his first championship courtesy of the best animal he has ever trained.

For vast segments of the racing game the Eclipse Awards are elusive pipe dreams, forever to be won by somebody else. Then along comes a colt like Caleb’s Posse, and suddenly a rich and vibrant family tradition is made known to a national audience.

The Von Hemels of southwestern Kansas have been steeped in horseflesh for three generations. As the winner of the King’s Bishop, the Ohio Derby, and most significantly the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Caleb’s Posse may the ultimate refinement of their history.

Between them, Donnie K. Von Hemel, his father, Don Von Hemel, and his brother, Kelly Von Hemel, have won more than 5,500 races. Donnie gives ample credit to his grandfather, a rancher and farmer who hailed from Manter, a little town close enough to the state line that on a dark night a wrong turn might find you in Colorado. Donnie was born in Syracuse, just up road.

“My grandfather worked on a place that had racehorses,” Donnie said this week from Oaklawn, where he is wintering with Caleb’s Posse and the rest of the main string. “It was so far back he’d ride a green colt to and from work just to help break him. Anyway, that’s how my father got started.”

Though destined for the racetrack, Donnie diverted long enough to earn a degree in accounting from Fort Hays State University. He got his Masters, basically, at Remington Park in Oklahoma city, where he is the all-time leading trainer, and has made his mark at every major Midwestern outpost with horses like Clever Trevor, Mariah’s Storm, Evansville Slew, and Bien Nicole. And now Caleb’s Posse, a colt who would get anyone noticed.

“It’s still going on,” he said. “I’ve still got people who haven’t seen me for a while coming up to congratulate me on the Breeders’ Cup. As for celebrating that night, it felt similar to winning the King’s Bishop up in Saratoga. It was such a satisfaction I didn’t need to celebrate. I just went home and went to bed.”

Von Hemel gave Caleb’s Posse his first breeze of the year Thursday at Oaklawn Park - three furlongs in 36.80 seconds - before he left Hot Springs for the bright lights of L.A. The trainer is getting vibes that the colt will be every bit the star at 4 he was at 3.

“He’s rambunctious and ready to go,” Von Hemel said. “Full of piss and vinegar. I’m going to rely on him having beaten older horses last November to give us confidence going into this year.”

Whether or not Caleb’s Posse will be doing business in 2012 as a reigning champion remains to be seen. He stands as one of those ‘tweener types, with an imposing r é sum é that does not quite fit into the traditional Eclipse Award categories available. As a result he is a finalist in both the voting for outstanding 3-year-old male – up against classic winners Animal Kingdom and Shackleford – and in the category of outstanding male sprinter, along with fellow Breeders’ Cup race winners Amazombie and Regally Ready.

“It would mean a lot if he wins,” Von Hemel said, “not only to myself but to my father, for all the years he’s put in the game, and my brother, too. My mother, my wife, my daughter – we’re all about horses.”

But not necessarily about formal dinners.

“Yeah, it’s been a few years since I’ve had to put on a tuxedo, but I’ve managed to put something together I think will do,” Von Hemel said. “We’re going to go out there and have fun no matter what happens. Win, lose, or draw it’s been a great year.”