There are not many trainers who have their first Kentucky Derby starter from three decades ago stabled just a few steps from their main residence. But that's the case for Donnie Von Hemel and Clever Trevor, a 30-year-old millionaire who lives on the trainer's farm in Piedmont, Okla.
"He's still living at home," quipped Von Hemel.
The barn's second Kentucky Derby starter will come Saturday. Suddenbreakingnews put himself in the gate following an Oaklawn season in which he won the Grade 3, $500,000 Southwest in February, finished a troubled fifth as the favorite in the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel in March, and was second in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby.
Clever Trevor was Von Hemel's first big horse, putting the then-27-year-old native of Manter, Kan., in the spotlight by winning the inaugural Remington Park Derby, running second in the Arkansas Derby, and then finishing 13th in the 1989 Kentucky Derby won by Sunday Silence.
Von Hemel, now 54, has gone on to establish himself as one of the Midwest's most respected horsemen. A graduate of Fort Hays State University with a degree in accounting, he instead went into the family business and has won 2,082 races since saddling his first winner at Ak-Sar-Ben in 1984. His charges have earned more than $54 million and include Caleb's Posse, the winner of the 2011 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile; See How She Runs, who dominated the Grade 1 Selene in 2002; and popular millionaires Alternation, Bien Nicole, Going Ballistic, Mr Ross, and She's All In.
But it will be Suddenbreakingnews who brings Von Hemel back to racing's center stage Saturday.
"The whole family is overjoyed," said Von Hemel's father, Don Von Hemel, the 81-year-old trainer based at Prairie Meadows.
"It means the world to us," added trainer Kelly Von Hemel, Donnie's 51-year-old brother. "I'm very excited for him because I think he's really got a legitimate chance to win the race or at least run a really good race."
Suddenbreakingnews, a son of Mineshaft owned by Sonny Henderson, has some similarities to Clever Trevor. Both are geldings who have an ornery disposition at times, and both got their starts in Oklahoma. Suddenbreakingnews won his maiden and the $101,000 Clever Trevor Stakes last fall at Remington Park. He also was edged by a nose in the track's $250,000 Springboard Mile in December before launching his 3-year-old season with a last-to-first win in the 14-horse Southwest.
"He was at Churchill as a 2-year-old, but his shins came up a little sore," Donnie Von Hemel said. "We knew he wasn't going to be running here, and with Mr. Henderson from West Texas, it just made sense to move him to Remington. We started him out on the turf, not so much looking for the turf, just looking for two-turn races. The maiden races on the dirt, we just didn't have confidence in those filling at the time."
Suddenbreakingnews was an instant hit, finishing first in a maiden special weight at 7 1/2 furlongs on turf in his debut Aug. 28. He proved a neck best but was disqualified for impeding a rival. A month later, Suddenbreakingnews came back and took a maiden special weight at a mile on dirt by 4-1/4 lengths.
"Before he started, we knew he was a two-turn horse and had some quality to him," Von Hemel said. "He won his first two maiden races. How many horses can say that? And one of them was from well off the pace and one of them on the pace. He showed versatility, which speaks to some talent."
The horse advanced to the Clever Trevor and showed sprinter's speed when cutting back to one turn for the first time Nov. 6.
"I was afraid I wasn't going to get the proper prep race for the Springboard Mile -- our money race of the year for him -- and decided to run seven-eighths," Von Hemel said. "We asked him to be pretty close to a fast pace, and he won, and it opened my eyes up that he could do that. In the Springboard Mile, he ran through a hole, almost got there, and we thought, 'He's a horse that deserves to be at Oaklawn for the 3-year-old series.' We skipped the Smarty Jones [in January] because we didn't want to run back a flat mile and pointed for the Southwest."
Suddenbreakingnews trailed for much of the 1-1/16-mile Southwest, began picking off horses on the final turn, and put in a middle-of-the-track run for a 2-3/4-length win. He proceeded to the Rebel and, after a rival stopped cold in front of him on the final turn, rallied to finish 4-3/4 lengths behind Cupid. Suddenbreakingnews closed his Oaklawn campaign with a runner-up finish to Creator in the Arkansas Derby, closing from ninth to finish 1-1/4 lengths back under regular rider Luis Quinonez.
"We were actually in front of Creator and Whitmore on the backside and going into the final turn," Von Hemel said. "They both passed him, and I thought at that time we were probably in a bit of trouble as far as the outcome of the race. Luis commented afterwards he just wasn't handling the racetrack around that turn. Once he straightened up and got outside down the lane, he put in a big run.
"He has been so consistent from the word go. You don't lead him over there and wonder if he'll run or not. He's shown he will run on turf or dirt, or an off track, whatever the case is, and pedigree-wise, he's the kind of horse it seems a mile and a quarter is something he can do."
Von Hemel's training approach up to the Kentucky Derby has been a simple one with Suddenbreakingnews, who has finished first or second in seven of his eight starts, earning $670,032. For the big race, the horse will add a shadow roll, which he started galloping in following the Arkansas Derby.
"I think in the three weeks from the Arkansas Derby to the Kentucky Derby, you're not going to make a big splash in your training," Von Hemel said. "The main thing is keeping him happy and healthy. It's more about keeping him mentally sharp and looking forward to running as much as anything."
As for Von Hemel, who has 30 horses in training at Churchill, including six 3-year-old colts and geldings, he's looking forward to a second chance at the Derby.
"I think for a stable my size, it's kind of a longshot to get a horse in the Derby," he said. "It's really a dream, and you realize there's a good chance it's never going to come to fruition. But it's a dream, and to be here with a chance, it's very gratifying."