Donnie Von Hemel is a trainer who likes to look long-term when a horse with above-average talent comes into his care.
Because he doesn’t have the numbers some of the bigger operations boast, Von Hemel rarely gets wrapped up in Triple Crown aspirations unless a charge forces his hand. He’s had one Kentucky Derby starter — the Oklahoma-bred Clever Trevor, who ran 13th in the 1989 classic and went on to become a Grade I winner. But Von Hemel would rather have a good stakes horse that can benefit his Midwest-based stables for a few seasons than risk pushing too hard for the sake of one, albeit career-making, race.
His gentlemanly tone sticks to the refrain of “Let’s get through Saturday first” when asked how serious a contender he has in Grade III winner Suddenbreakingnews, who will break from post No. 14 in Saturday’s Grade II, $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Should the Mineshaft gelding pull off a move similar to the one that earned him victory in the Southwest Stakes last month, Von Hemel might not be able to stave off thoughts that he could be bound for the Kentucky Derby again after 27 years.
“If he takes us there, that’s great,” Von Hemel said. “If he doesn’t, he’s a nice enough horse and he could have a really nice career anyways.”
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If Suddenbreakingnews does earn a spot in this year’s Kentucky Derby, he will have ample experience working his way through a melee of contenders. In his first start of 2016, the bay gelding broke from post 13 and then unleashed a sweeping move from last in the 14-horse field to win the Grade III Southwest Stakes going away by 2¾ lengths.
We asked him to be fast and he did it. And when we did that, he really showed me something, I thought. He has that versatility, and I do think the further the better for him. But for him to go and do something else when you asked him to, that made me start thinking this could be a really nice horse.
Donnie Von Hemel, trainer of Suddenbreakingnews
While his winning move that day might have been a come-from-the-clouds type of effort, Suddenbreakingnews didn’t just fall onto the Derby trail scene without solid foundation. In six career starts, Samuel Henderson’s gelding has three wins and hasn’t been worse than second, actually crossing the wire first in his career debut at Remington Park in August only to be disqualified for interference.
After watching Discreetness, who defeated Suddenbreakingnews by a nose in the Remington Springboard Mile on Dec. 13, win the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn in January, Von Hemel rightly thought his horse would be competitive regardless of post in the 1 1/16 -mile Southwest. With jockey Luis Quinonez wisely able to save ground early, Suddenbreakingnews closed like a freight train off an opening half in :47.06 and put ample daylight between himself and runner-up Whitmore in the final 10 strides.
“With the post position we were blessed with, if we weren’t going to get over and save some ground it was going to make it a pretty tough chore,” said Von Hemel, who counts 2011 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Caleb’s Posse among his top previous charges. “He was a little further back than I thought he would be but … at the three-eighths pole you could start to see him get things going, and it was just a matter of if he would have enough time to get there.
“I didn’t feel like he was going to get there until inside the eighth pole, and of course he wins going away. He was moving along pretty good at that point.”
As visually impressive as that late kick was, Suddenbreakingnews has shown there is more than just one run in him. He was on the lead when he broke his maiden going a mile at Remington Park in September. Two starts later, Von Hemel shortened him up in the 7-furlong Clever Trevor Stakes, where the gelding prevailed by half a length.
“We asked him to be fast and he did it. And when we did that, he really showed me something, I thought,” Von Hemel said. “He has that versatility, and I do think the further the better for him. But for him to go and do something else when you asked him to, that made me start thinking this could be a really nice horse.”
For the moment, Von Hemel isn’t thinking beyond what Suddenbreakingnews could achieve this weekend. He will concede that his runner is getting a heck of an education for bigger tests down the line.
“I guess if you try and look on the bright side of things is we’re getting experience in big fields of horses and some of the other (Derby contenders) are running in five- and six-horse fields,” he said, laughing. “We’re focusing on the positive.”
What: Jentucky Derby prep points race
Where: Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
When: 7:06 p.m. EDT
Purse: $900,000 (Grade II)
Distance: 1 1/16 miles