Memories flood Donnie Von Hemel as Remington Park turns 35

Memories flood Donnie Von Hemel as Remington Park turns 35

Berry Tramel: Long-time trainer Donnie Von Hemel says the Oklahoma horse industry is not as strong as it once was but is strong compared to other states.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 7, 2023, 11:43am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 7, 2023, 11:43am CDT

Donnie Von Hemel still remembers the vibe and excitement of the day. Sept. 1, 1988.

Thirty-five years ago last week, Remington Park opened with the kind of revelry reserved for the Land Run.

“On all sides, the horsemen, track management, the fans, had been anticipating it for a couple of years,” said Von Hemel. “The entire city seemed captivated.”

Von Hemel was a young trainer in those days, pleased to have another track in Middle America to run his horses, joining Ak-sar-ben in Omaha, Nebraska; Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, Louisiana.

Von Hemel remembers the local news stations producing their newscasts on live sets in the Remington infield.

“You don’t see stuff like that unless it’s Derby week in Churchill,” Von Hemel said. “It was quite the day. Brings back a bunch of memories.”

So does Ed Godfrey’s story from The Daily Oklahoman.

“Some came wearing 10-gallon hats chopping on $10 stogies,” Godfrey wrote. “Others came wearing three-piece suits with racing forms tucked in their vests. Still others came in attire fitting the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. All that was missing were the mint juleps and the playing of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ Margaritas and ‘Oklahoma!’ were the substitutes.”

A crowd of 15,284 turned out, held down by Remington’s decision to sell only advance tickets and try to spread out the crowds throughout the long weekend, the opening day being a Thursday.

The crowds indeed were massive: 23,503 the next Feb. 18; 23,280 on Feb. 24, 1990; 26,411 on Feb. 29, 1992, a record that still stands.

Those kinds of crowds are rare at tracks these days. The proliferation of casino and other gambling has chipped away at the horse racing audience.

But Remington, despite downs and ups, remains open, providing the horse crowd with a venue to run their thoroughbreds and quarterhorses.

“Brings back a bunch of memories,” Von Hemel said the other day from Louisville, which along with Oklahoma City remains his base.

Von Hemel is 61. He trains about 30 horses these days. “With my age, I’m not looking to train a bunch. I’m not as ambitious as I was when Remington started,” he said.

Horses are harder to find, anyway. Thoroughbreds produce about half the foals they produced three and four decades ago.

Some tracks have made it. Some haven’t. Ak-Sar-Ben was the nation’s 10th-most attended race track in 1985. By 1995, it was closed. Greyhound and horse racing began in Iowa in 1986, greyhound betting reached Kansas in 1989 and casino gambling came to Missouri in 1993.

Some race tracks remain strong — Oaklawn, for example — but Louisiana Downs and Remington are “not what they used to be.”

Remington Park has fought through hurdles to remain in business as a racino, offering both casino gambling and racing.

“It’s been an up and down 35 years,” Von Hemel said. “Overall good. I think we’ve got to be positive. The ability to adapt has been key.”

The Indian tribes were competitors that threatened racing’s existence in Oklahoma, but now they are partners.

“They’ve been good partners for the horsemen,” Von Hemel said. “There’s been a lot of tracks Remington’s size that have closed down or will close down. They’ve had a lot of changes. So hopefully we can keep racing going in Oklahoma and trying to make it better.”

Von Hemel says the Oklahoma horse industry is not as strong as it once was but is strong compared to other states.

Von Hemel turns sociologist. Fewer people growing up in rural areas, so fewer people enamored with horses. Fewer horses, fewer races, fewer race tracks.

But Von Hemel still is pulling for Remington and believes in the viability of the track.

And he’s got the memories of grand times.

Von Hemel trained Caleb’s Posse, who won the $1 million Breeder’s Cup Dirt Mile in 2011 at Churchill Downs. Yet Von Hemel says his racing highlight was winning three Oklahoma Derbys, including the first, in 1989, with the iconic Clever Trevor.

Clever Trevor’s Oklahoma Derby victory came about 6½ months after Remington’s opening.

Said Von Hemel, “It was quite the day.”

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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