March 20, 2011
Saturday was as pretty a day as one could hope to have in late March, even in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Spring had exploded in these environs over the previous ten days. The pink pear trees were gorgeous. The daffodils pointed their beautiful, yellow blossoms skyward from one end of town to the other. As a guy who loves to host folks into Hot Springs, I couldn't have been happier to see this kind of "Chamber of Commerce" day in our community.
Added to that good news was that it figured to be a big racing day in Hot Springs. Eleven races were scheduled, starting at 1:00 p.m. and we figured to get 30,000 or more fans into our facility. The infield was open, we were giving away a boat and truck and we had two great stakes races, one for some of the best fillies and mares in training, including one Eclipse Award winner and the other were three-year-olds headed towards the Triple Crown. Great trainers like Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer were here in person and joining the joining the local training ranks, while riders like Ramon Dominguez, Garrett Gomez and Jeremy Rose were accepting mounts on the card and, professionally, this day had all the makings of a great one.
That should have been enough. But I was in something of a personal quandry. I had tickets for the Arkansas Symphony in Little Rock for that night (my family is into symphony and has been for a long time), but everyone I worked with was eager to go to the annual HBPA dinner-dance. The national convention of that horsemen's association was taking place in Hot Springs this year and it was a bigger deal than normal. I know that my life is in racing, so I gave my symphony tickets away to a pair of newlyweds I know and made plans for the horsemen's party. I also heard whispers that they would be honoring Don Von Hemel, one of the horsemen whom I've held in highest respect for a numbers for a number of years.
The racing card ran long, so those of us coming from Oaklawn mostly missed the cocktail hour. That's something that rarely happens with my bunch. But we were having a great racing day, so the momentum of the day was easy to carry.
Some of my friends had held two seats for me and Miss Marty for the event and I was happy to sit down to a good meal surrounded by lots of friends. I knew there would be talk of last year's visit by Zenyatta to Oaklawn and, likely, the honors to Von Hemel.
It all went as I expected. There were the normal run of introductions of everyone, including some of us staffers at Oaklawn. That was followed by a wonderful video presentation produced by Oaklawn about Zenyatta's Apple Blossom Day in 2010. More than 44,000 showed up at Oaklawn on that Friday afternoon and experienced an emotional racing high which topped any kind of high that some synthetic drug could produce.
Then it came time to honor the Man-of-the-Year. Emcee Bill Walmsley first assured that the Person-of-the-Year would be a man and not a woman. So, as I prepared to hear a rundown on the carrer of the illustrious Don Von Hemel, I discovered that he had accomplished almost exactly the same things that I have done. As a matter of fact, they were not directing the conversation about Von Hemel at all. It sounded eerily like they were reading my bio.
Clearly the most surprised person in the room was me. From these people whom I have worked with and respected all these years came their highest award, Man-of-the-Year. I was stunned, honored and humbled and still am on the day after.
I was presented with a wonderful caricature done by Peb. Peb had always been special to me and even he may not remember why. But when I was a young guy, taking call for the Daily Racing Form at Churchill Downs, on a couple of occasions he would sit and speak in French with me, allowing me to keep my language knowledge going where there was no one else around fluent in that language. I had studied for a year in Paris, so it was fun to speak French again. As a matter of fact it will be fun to do more of that this year when I go with a group to Paris for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe race in early October
I am still floating on the veritable cloud here today. It may be cloudless outside, but there's one very nice one under my feet.
And as for Von Hemel. I'm hoping the HBPA is saving his honor for Man-of-the-Century.
By the way, he was honored as Man-of-the-Year, but it had been the evening before at the Chaplain's dinner. I had to miss it because of a long-time prior commitment to a fund-raiser for the American Heart Association. Given my shock at the honor last night, I almost had to call on my friends from AHA to get my heart through the surprise of Saturday night.
How was I to know? I was too busy getting rid of my tickets to the symphony.