01/16/2008 12:00AM

One family, three Oaklawn stables


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Don Von Hemel first came to Oaklawn Park some 50 years ago, but the meet that opens Friday could end up being his most memorable. Not only does he train one of the track's most exciting 3-year-olds in Sebastian County, but his sons, trainers Donnie Von Hemel and Kelly Von Hemel, Oaklawn regulars themselves, each have major stakes horses on the grounds. Donnie is gearing up Going Ballistic and Brownie Points for Oaklawn's top races for older horses, while Kelly's strength is in the sprint division with Miss Macy Sue and Semaphore Man.

The Von Hemels, all natives of Manter, Kan., together have logged more than 5,100 wins. Don Von Hemel, 73, accounts for about 2,500 of those victories, and while he is looking forward to a successful meet, he also is excited about the prospects for Donnie, 46, and Kelly, 42.

"You know, it makes me feel very emotional when they win a race," Don said. "In fact, it makes me feel better than when I win a race because I'm probably getting to the end of my career, so to speak, and those boys are in the midst of theirs. Every time they do well, it just makes me that much prouder of them."

Kelly, who has been coming to Oaklawn since 2003, had a breakout year in 2007, with a career-best 65 wins and stable earnings of $2.2 million. His star player was Miss Macy Sue, who finished third in the inaugural $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Donnie, meanwhile, won both the Grade 2 Super Derby and Oklahoma Derby with Going Ballistic. The success helped lift his stable to a personal-best $2.7 million in earnings in 2007.

As for Don Von Hemel, he sent out Sebastian County to win the first two starts of his career and finish third in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity. A son of Hennessy, the horse was bred by the Dream Walkin' Farms operation of his owner, country music artist Toby Keith. Sebastian County brought a bid of $950,000 during a Fasig-Tipton sale of 2-year-olds in training in February, but was bought back for $1 million, according to Lynden Branch, manager of Dream Walkin' Farms in Paul's Valley, Okla.

"He's shown a lot of promise," Don said of Sebastian County. "He's a grand-looking individual, and he's nicely bred, a full brother to Cactus Ridge. We think that he has a lot of promise off what he did last year, and what we expect him to do this year."

Cactus Ridge was undefeated in four starts as a 2-year-old and won the Arlington-Washington Futurity.

Von Hemel said Sebastian County, one of 20 horses he has at Oaklawn, was freshened after the Arlington-Washington on Sept. 1. He is looking forward to starting the colt around two turns, and said his first Oaklawn stakes start could come in the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel on March 15.

Miss Macy Sue is due to join the 22-horse stable Kelly has here by Feb. 1. She won 5 of 7 starts last year, including the $50,000 Carousel at Oaklawn, the Grade 3 Winning Colors at Churchill, and the inaugural $400,000 Masters at Presque Isle Downs.

"We decided after the Breeders' Cup to give her plenty of time, and whenever she's ready to come back, we'll sit down and make a schedule for her," Kelly said.

It is "50-50" that Miss Macy Sue will be ready to run during the Oaklawn meet, Kelly said. Long term, he would like to make a return trip to the Breeders' Cup. This year, the Filly and Mare Sprint will be run a furlong longer, at seven-eighths. The race is scheduled to be run on a synthetic surface at Santa Anita.

"She proved at Presque Isle that she likes a synthetic track, so if we can get her stretched out to seven-eighths at the quality she ran last year, we'd sure like to take another run at them," Kelly said.

As for Semaphore Man, he finished third last weekend in the Gaudin Memorial at Fair Grounds while making his first start since May. He will be pointed to a defense of his title in the $50,000 King Cotton at Oaklawn on Feb. 2, with his major goal of the meet the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet on April 10.

Going Ballistic, part of a 40-horse stable Donnie has at Oaklawn, is to make his next start in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita on Jan. 26. His ultimate goal in Hot Springs is the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 5.

Going Ballistic earned $690,140 last year. In addition to his Super Derby and Oklahoma Derby wins, he finished third in both the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington Park and the $250,000 Iowa Derby. He had to travel from his summer base at Lone Star Park for those races, but the ship was eased by the fact that Don and Kelly spend part of their year in the Midwest.

"It worked out that when he's had to travel, we've had my brother in Iowa and my father in Chicago, where he got to stay for long periods of time," Donnie said. "He didn't have to go back and forth. It was comfortable travel."

Brownie Points, an Oaklawn stakes winner who last June captured the $125,000 Iowa Distaff, returned to Hot Springs on Monday after a freshening. Her meet objective is the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom on April 5.

Donnie, who trained millionaires Clever Trevor, Mr Ross, and Bien Nicole, and Kelly, who trained the Iowa-bred millionaire Sure Shot Biscuit, have one other sibling, Pam, who is a speech pathologist. Growing up, the brothers spent any time off from school working in the barn with their father. Donnie first came to Oaklawn full time in 1984, while working as an assistant to Don.

"I think his consistency, his longevity, are things I really respect," Donnie said. "That and the fact that when he came up as a trainer, you had to do it all, from the ground work, to the exercising, to the shoeing. I think trainers of that era probably had a more well-rounded background with horses than some of us do now."

"He's got a lot of patience," Kelly added of his father, who is best known for training Mariah's Storm, a winner of more than $700,000 who is the dam of Giant's Causeway and the inspiration for the movie "Dreamer." "And he's very strong on details. He doesn't miss anything. He picks up everything and takes care of it before it becomes a problem."

Don, who has been married to his wife, Roylynn, since 1959, said their sons are committed trainers who are particularly adept at the placement of their horses. This winter, the Von Hemel horses could be placing their trainers in the winner's circle following a number of key stakes at Oaklawn.