So much of a trainer’s job is managing expectations and emotions. In addition to being one of the most respected horsemen on the Midwest circuit, Donnie Von Hemel is a master at the art of the even keel.
The “one-race-at-a-time” refrain is a standard answer elicited from the Kansas-born conditioner. And when it was pointed out that after more than 30 years in his profession, he is set to have his first Belmont Stakes starter Saturday in graded stakes winner Suddenbreakingnews, Von Hemel laughed that he “hadn’t thought much about that.”
One could argue that Suddenbreakingnews takes very much after the man who hones his talent. In his nine career starts, the ridgling son of Mineshaft has been the definition of consistent, running first or second seven times and never finishing worse than fifth.
Together, they make for an unassuming duo. But after what Von Hemel has seen on the Triple Crown trail, he’s warming to the idea that Saturday could be their day.
“I think my horse is the same caliber — now we haven’t beaten those guys yet — but I think he’s of the same caliber as the others who will be in there,” Von Hemel said of the projected Belmont field.
The melee that is the Kentucky Derby often produces a few losing efforts that can be called sneaky good in hindsight. The fifth-place run that Suddenbreakingnews put in behind race winner Nyquist was one such outing as the bay youngster bobbed and weaved from next to last in the 20-horse field and came with his typical late run.
While Derby runner-up turned Preakness Stakes victor Exaggerator was locking down his status as the probable Belmont Stakes favorite by defeating previously unbeaten Nyquist two weeks later, Suddenbreakingnews was cooling his heels at Churchill Downs in preparation for what Von Hemel hopes is his runner’s ultimate rally. When he was making his first five career starts at Oklahoma’s Remington Park, Suddenbreakingnews did enough to convince his conservative trainer the potential was there for him to be more than just a good local stakes horse.
With his come-from-the-clouds win in the Grade III Southwest Stakes on Feb. 15, his runner-up finish in the Grade I Arkansas Derby and his quality effort in the most revered of American classics, Von Hemel has had to keep readjusting the bar of expectations upwards.
“I think last fall he ran some nice races and (I thought) he would have a chance to be a graded-stakes type horse,” Von Hemel said. “But I think he’s exceeded that, and being a trainer is all about managing expectations for your clients and for yourself and for your horses so you don’t overmatch them. In his case I think he can handle them. I think with 99.9 percent of the horses that don’t make it to the Derby, this is above anything you can hope for because it’s so difficult to get there. So any horse that makes it to that point with very few exceptions is exceeding what you could have hoped for.”
Von Hemel figured that if there was a time to try and knock off those who have gotten the better of Samuel Henderson’s Suddenbreakingnews in the past, catching some at the tail end of the Triple Crown grind may be as good a strategy as any.
On form, Von Hemel concedes that Exaggerator “is the most likely winner of the race with what he’s done up to this point.” And given that deep closers are at the disadvantage of the tepid fractions that often result during Belmont’s 1½-mile journey, Suddenbreakingnews probably will have to situate himself far closer than the 20-plus lengths off the early going he traveled in the Kentucky Derby.
“I think there will probably be some horses in front of him no matter what the pace is, but the fact that we would be a couple lengths, 2, 3, 4, 5 lengths behind as opposed to 15 or 20 lengths behind, I don’t think will be a factor,” Von Hemel said.
“I think if you look at some of his races as a younger horse, we did have a horse that was placed closer. Now, we did have a lot of success being a deep closer this spring when the pace was really rapid. But it’s a mile-and-a-half race. It’s just one of those things where I think the pace and the ability of the riders to sense that pace and know that is a very important factor, yes.”
To that end, Suddenbreakingnews will have a new jockey in the irons for his Belmont outing, with Hall of Famer and two-time Belmont Stakes winner Mike Smith taking over the reins from Luis Quiñonez.
He also has a new gender wrinkle. Having previously been registered as a gelding, it was recently discovered that Suddenbreakingnews has two undescended testicles and he has since been reclassified as a ridgling.
“Once we did the ultrasound and found out he was actually what they call a bilateral cryptorchid, that was news to us certainly,” Von Hemel said. “You know, I don’t think it’s really changed anything about what I thought of him before or since.”