• June 19, 2019

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Odessa rancher’s horse hits big time

Rancher Sonny Henderson has entry running in Kentucky Derby

Odessan Sonny Henderson is a serious horse owner, having been in the game for five decades, running horses in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas, along with the occasional runner in California. Henderson now has a horse, Suddenbreakingnews, running in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Suddenbreakingnews, owned by Odessan Sonny Henderson, a rancher, is set to run in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Every year, hundreds of thoroughbred colts and fillies are presented and sold throughout the country, their new owners hoping that lightning strikes and they have the next Triple Crown winner.

Those lightning strikes have been few and far between as just 12 horses since 1900 have managed to be first to the finish line at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same six-week period.

American Pharoah shocked the racing world just a season ago, becoming the first to navigate the three different distances on three different tracks since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.

Those rare strikes, however, do not deter the serious horse owners from searching the sales, reading deep into a yearling’s bloodlines to check out the sires, dams (mothers), grandfathers, grandmothers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers.

Odessan Sonny Henderson is a serious horse owner, having been in the game for five decades, running horses in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas, along with the occasional runner in California.

Henderson, owner of Henderson LTM Ranches, ventured a little farther away from his usual stomping grounds in the fall of 2014, heading to Lexington, Ky., for an annual yearling sale at Keeneland Race Track.

Then, after reading up on all the available animals for sale, Henderson became the owner of four new “babies.”

The 78-year-old rancher did something else that day as well — he became a lightning rod.

Henderson now has a horse, Suddenbreakingnews, running in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Luis Quinonez
Jockey Luis Quinonez (2) sits aboard Suddenbreakingnews after winning the $500,000 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 15 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. AP Photo/David Quinn

NOTHING TO LOOK AT

Henderson already had purchased two colts by the time Hip No. 2169 was moved into the ring, a bay colt born on May 3, 2013, and sired by Mineshaft, the 2003 Horse of the Year, with Uchitel as the first dam.

“He was the sorriest-looking colt of all of them,” Henderson said, with a laugh. “Wasn’t much to look at.”

Still, Henderson was intrigued by the colt and ended up with the winning bid of $72,000.

At a sale where prices routinely hit six figures and sometimes top seven digits, Henderson had just committed a little bit of larceny when the colt’s bloodlines were researched a little deeper.

Mineshaft was a progeny of A.P. Indy, the winner of the 1992 Belmont Stakes. A.P. Indy was sired by Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown, with Weekend Surprise the first dam.

Weekend Surprise’s father was Secretariat.

Yes, that Secretariat.

On the mother’s side, Afleet Alex was the sire. All he did was finish third in the 2005 Kentucky Derby and then win the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the ensuing five-week period.

Heading deeper into Uchitel’s bloodline, in what would be her maternal great-great-great-grandfather, is 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

“I saw that he was out of Mineshaft, with Alfeet Alex on the dam’s side,” Henderson said. “Both very good horses with a strong history.

“So I took the chance and bought him.”

One dozen Triple Crown winners in more than a century of racing. Suddenbreakingnews has the bloodlines of 25 percent of them coursing through his veins.

A NAME ... AND A TRAINER

Now that the colt was his, Henderson had to name him.

Thoroughbreds must be named by February of their 2-year-old year (all horses have birthdays on Jan. 1, no matter the day born). Owners provide a list of up to six names to the Jockey Club, in order of preference and the Jockey Club decides the name.

“We submitted Breakingnews first and they rejected it,” Henderson said. “So we added Sudden to it and they accepted it.

“We don’t know why, it’s just the way it turned out. Turned out to be pretty good.”

Along with finding a name, Henderson needed to find a trainer willing to take on the task of grooming a high-spirited animal for a possible career on the track.

Henderson stables horses in both Roswell, N.M., and El Paso, but wanted someone different.

Enter Donnie K. Von Hemel.

Donnie Von Hemel
Trainer Donnie Von Hemel talks with track media  Feb 15 after his horse Suddenbreakingnews won the $500,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. After a slow start, the prized colt put his trainer's mind at ease on Monday, using a wide and powerful late charge to win the $500,000 Kentucky Derby prep race at Oaklawn Park.  AP Photo/David Quinn

Training since 1984, Von Hemel has been around the game his entire life, following in the footsteps of his father Don Von Hemel. A leading trainer around the Midwest, Donnie Von Hemel has made a name for himself at both Oaklawn in Arkansas and Remington Park in Oklahoma.

Currently, Von Hemel is ranked 25th in the nation.

Henderson and Von Hemel knew of each other, but never had they been able to team up together with a horse.

That was about to change.

“I think we knew about each other for quite some time,” Von Hemel said. “But we never really had an opportunity until he bought some horses and was looking for someone.

“He brought another one, too, but it didn’t amount to much. This can be a brutal game.”

A brutal game that Von Hemel knows how to navigate, having taken Clever Trevor to the 1989 Kentucky Derby and then watching another charge, Caleb’s Posse, win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in 2011.

Von Hemel said finding out whether a horse is capable is basically time and effort — and it took some time with Suddenbreakingnews.

“He looked like a horse who could go two turns,” Von Hemel said. “We just went to work with him.”

Suddenbreakingnews proved worth the effort his first time out.

At Remington Park, the colt broke slow but was at the head of the field halfway through the race. He battled with Royal Ransom through the stretch and was able to hold on for a victory by a neck.

Then came the bad news.

“There was some bumping,” Henderson said. “As they were going down the lane, the horse (Royal Ransom) made another run at him.

“They disqualified us and put us second, but we knew we had something.”

Suddenbreakingnews would break his maiden in his next outing, in September of last year and then ran three more times in 2015 before shutting down for the winter, adding two more runner-up finishes and a victory in the Clever Trevor Stakes, named for the horse Von Hemel took to Louisville.

“That was pretty nice,” Von Hemel said.

That set Suddenbreakingnews up for 2016 and he came out flying.

Running in the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, he was 12th on the start and with just 5/16ths of a mile remaining in the 1-1/16-mile event, he was still 12th.

Then, going seven wide around the final turn and into the top of the stretch, jockey Luis Quinonez tapped the gas and kept his foot to the floor.

Suddenbreakingnews dominated the stretch run, making up all the deficit and then running away for a victory by almost three lengths. The win was worth $300,000 and, more importantly, points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.

“That’s the way he likes to run,” Henderson said. “Afleet Alex was a distance horse and Suddenbreakingnews can run and run.”

He proved it again earlier this month in the Arkansas Derby, sitting 10th in the final turn before turning on the jets to finish second and driving — all the way to Louisville.

The runner-up finish earned Suddenbreakingnews enough points that he was comfortably in the field at the Kentucky Derby at the No. 12 spot.

“We knew right away that we were in,” Von Hemel said. “If the horse is doing well enough to go, we’ll go.”

They’re gone.  

 

MAKING THE WALK

The barns at Churchill Downs are situated on the backstretch by Turn 2, with the saddling paddock for the races located behind the main grandstand.

That means for every race, the horses are paraded around the first two turns in front of the crowd as they head to get saddled and have their jockeys get in the irons.

On a normal day, that’s not a big problem.

On Derby Day, with more than 100,000 people on the grounds waiting for a glimpse of the contenders, things can get very interesting along the rail.

“We are going to school him,” Von Hemel said. “We’ll walk him back and forth a couple times.

“But there were 60,000 people at Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby and he didn’t seem to have any problem with the crowd. But we’ll do the schooling and I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Also fine and ready to make the walk is Henderson, who got out of the game for a few years while battling health issues.

A heart attack, Type 2 diabetes and then a diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia sidelined the rancher from a sport he loves. But he has battled back from his health issues and the doctors at M.D. Anderson in Houston have said his leukemia is in remission, so he got back into the game.

“Honestly, I was bored,” he said. “I was tired of just sitting around and doing nothing.

“I’m doing plenty now,” he added, laughing.

So, too, is everyone involved, buying clothes and hats and getting ready for a trip to Louisville.

Von Hemel and Suddenbreakingnews arrived in Kentucky April 19. Henderson and the rest of his group will arrive Tuesday.

Suddenbreakingnews, Ramiro Gorostieta
Kentucky Derby hopeful Suddenbreakingnews gallops Tuesday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., ridden by exercise rider Ramiro Gorostieta.  AP Photo/Garry Jones

The draw for post positions will happen Wednesday and at that time, Suddenbreakingnews will be given odds on just how the experts feel he’ll do.

Henderson, however, already has bucked the odds, both with the horse and his health, and is enjoying every minute of this late-in-life experience.

So much so that in 2015, he went back to Keeneland and bought 12 more horses.

“I’ve got 17 in training right now,” Henderson said. “We are all very excited and can’t wait to go to Kentucky.

“I’ve watched it every year and to be a part of it is something special.”

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