April 25, 2012

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What follows are some very personal thoughts.  I want to take some time to share them with you.

Last Saturday afternoon the happiest moment for me came when She’s All In romped to victory in the Sixty Sails Stakes at Hawthorne.  The happiness stemmed not for a wager, but for the continued success of Donnie K. Von Hemel, her trainer.  I’ve had the joy of watching Donnie grow up and, like with my own kids, I’ve learned the beauty of seeing the bloom grow from a tiny seed.  Donnie was somewhat introverted in my dealings with him as a younger boy. Now that he’s a man, he’s turned into an excellent spokesperson for racing and a good friend.

Those who attended Oaklawn’s Dawn at Oaklawn on Wednesday morning,  April 11, got the chance to see the grown-up edition of Donnie Von Hemel and had they eyes opened to a really special racetracker. For many years there were those who thought he was just riding the coattails of his dad, Don. Don was credited with underwriting the careers of his sons, Donnie and Kelly, as they got started in the racing business.

Many fathers don’t get the opportunity to kick-start the careers of their sons, but Donnie and Kelly can look back on the lessons learned and be thankful that, thanks largely to their parents, they’ve had a great opportunity to go far from their beginnings in little Manter, Kansas.

For Donnie the success has been frequent.  Not only does he have She’s All In in the barn, although she’s the star for this week, he also trains two of the best older horses in America, Alternation and Caleb’s Posse.  He could end up in the unenviable position of training two horses who could knock one another out of Eclipse consideration at the end of the year. Certainly Caleb’s Posse, arguably the best three-year-old of 2011 who didn’t win a championship, and Alternation, winner of the best race for older horses around two turns thus far in 2012, the Oaklawn Handicap.

But Donnie doesn’t play political nonsense with the press and the public. When interviewed at Dawn at Oaklawn he quickly responded that he was passing on the Apple Blossom Handicap in favor of the Sixty Sails because his mare was better ready for the Sixty Sails.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s race, one could hardly question the choices this man has made. He’s no longer the young Donnie Von Hemel.  Not only does he sport some gray hairs where once there were none, the badge of advancing age, he shows the smarts of aging, certainly learned from his father, who is one of the most respected trainers in racing in Middle America.

On pondering Donnie’s success, it occurred to me that, as I look back over the past forty years of my personal racing career, it is the development of friendships with folks like the Von Hemels and others which gives substance to the decision I made years ago, to leave the school classroom and try my hand at the sport of thoroughbred racing.

So many real friends can be numbered among my co-workers and the horsemen whom I’ve learned to honor and respect over that period of time.  Donnie Von Hemel will have lots of winners in his career, but to me it is his person which is important.  He, like so many others in this sport, is a quality individual and deserving of any of the honors which come his way.

Not everyone like that gets the chance to enjoy those honors.  The man who first taught me about horse racing and the abundance of what I know about horses in general was the late Richard Crosby, a guy who worked in relative obscurity for most of his career.  Dick, like a number of others in this business, was respected for his talent by his peers and always willing to help another person when they couldn’t call on anyone else.  In particular I remember that Dick came to the aid of a horseman with an especially difficult horse at Beulah Park.  The horse ran off in the stable area with Dick holding on to his bridle.  The horse nearly picked Dick off as they raced past a building in the middle of the stable area, but Dick held on.  He was one of those people who understood that, once he accepted a responsibility, he was going to be good with it.  Eventually he got the horse stopped, picked up and dusted off his cap and returned the horse, a lot quieter, to the horseman who was watching the whole episode in horror.

Dick Crosby came to the Midwest by way of California, through his friend, the incomparable Mel Stute.  Some years later, when I was on a recruiting trip to California and standing in the outside paddock at Santa Anita, there was a shout from a group of people for “Terry Wallace”.  Never in the history of Santa Anita had that should been heard.  I turned to see who was calling out my name and it was Dick Crosby and his family, the last people I expected on that day.  We later met for a reunion dinner at a nearby restaurant and it is one of my favorite memories.  Clearly one’s favorite memories come from family and friends. 

I’ve been around a number of great racehorses in my adult life.  I put in a number of years working at smaller tracks, assignments I would never regret.  But the association with great racehorses, along with the wonderful people whom I’ve met and befriended, stands at the top of the list. 

No, it wasn’t that the winner on Saturday was She’s All In and she came to that race with a number of Oaklawn races on her past performances.  It was that her trainer was Donnie K. Von Hemel.  Like a number of others in this occupation, their professional and personal success make me happy.

Many, like Dick Crosby, have passed on, but the number of wonderful relationships in this business grows steadily.  For me it didn’t start out that way, but my respect for friendships and close relationships has developed with the years and makes it fun to come to the races on a regular basis.

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