SPORTS: Horse Power

As soon as the gates open, a wall of thoroughbreds comes barreling out with hooves flying in the red dirt at Remington Park. Bunched in a mass of horseflesh at first, slowly the winners peel ahead, breath bursting from silky noses as the crowd stands to cheer, curse or pray for their horse to come ahead. The jockeys hover above the saddle with heads down and whips ready.

With the reinvention of Remington Park and Casino and Oklahoma Horse Racing Hall of Fame, the sport is becoming more popular with Oklahomans. “Remington Park wanted to start a hall of fame for many years, and we are now finally able to establish it and give it the time and respect the great horses and horsemen from our state deserve,” said Dale Day, track announcer and communications manager.

And Edmond claims two of the best thoroughbred racing horses in Clever Trevor and Mr. Ross, both from owner and breeder Don McNeill. Both horses were inducted in October in Oklahoma’s inaugural class of the Horse Racing Hall of Fame. For Day, honoring a millionaire horse like Clever Trevor hits close to home. He was the winner of the inaugural Oklahoma Derby, known in 1989 as the Remington Park Derby.

“He was a great ambassador for Oklahoma racing and its new racetrack, Remington Park, which opened in 1988,” said Day. “Clever Trevor’s success in major races around the nation in 1989 as a 3-year-old made national racing fans and media take note of the type of horse talent that was coming out of Oklahoma and made them take notice of the new track at the same time. Clever Trevor became a millionaire in earnings in 1989 and is still highly revered in retirement at the farm of his trainer Donnie Von Hemel at the happy age of 25.”

Clever Trevor won 15 races, including nine stakes, and earned $1,388,841 in 30 starts for McNeill. Mr. Ross raced in the late 1990s and also was trained by Von Hemel. Although he never reached the status Clever Trevor did, the horse did have an impressive record. “He was another Oklahoma-bred that helped draw attention to the state racing and breeding industries, and he made over a million in his career as well. He is in retirement at McNeill’s farm in Edmond,” Day said.

In the world of racing, having two millionaire horses is something to admire, said Day. “(McNeill and Von Hemel) put plenty of time, research and money into establishing their racing program, which includes breeding and purchasing horses at sale,” he said. “That doesn’t automatically mean every horse is going to have great success, but it helps with the type of commitment these owners have made to improve racing and to win. The popularity of horseracing in Oklahoma continues to grow with each season.”

Revenues from the casino help fund both the horseracing purses and the state’s general education fund. According to Day, Remington has contributed $63 million to state education and has raised the horseracing purses to levels that put the track on a level with some of the larger tracks across the nation. “The higher purse levels draw higher-caliber horses, making the level of racing much more competitive and noteworthy nationally,” said Day. “Fans respond because they get to see many top horses and horsemen compete here.”

Jockey Bryan McNeil, of Edmond, is among those who compete in Oklahoma, as well as nationally. The son of a jockey, 20-plus-year veteran Tony McNeil, he began his career riding quarter horses under the tutelage of Jack Brooks, hall of fame quarter horse trainer. “My dad is a jockey and he’s still riding, so I grew up watching him and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I started galloping horses at Jack Brooks’ farm in Jones when I was about 17 or 18.”

For several years, McNeil worked with Brooks in galloping and breaking horses, but when Brooks retired, the young jockey switched to thoroughbreds. His brother, Erik, also is a jockey. To this day, father and sons regularly compete in the racing circuit. “I ran my first race in 2004 in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and I won,” said McNeil. “My first race was my first win, and after that I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.” Together, the McNeils have approximately 1,200 combined career victories with the sons claiming a majority of recent wins.

Still, racing isn’t all money purses and speed. For McNeil, the sport is a career, and one that takes up the majority of his life. “I work seven days a week,” he said. “From 6 a.m. to about 10 a.m., we exercise and welcome the horses every morning. In the afternoons, four days a week, we race them. With the horses, you guide them and take care of them, and they take care of you.”

From August to December 15, McNeil races at Remington Park. From there, he’ll move on to Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs, Arkansas, through April. Then he heads to Dallas’ Lone Star Park to race through the end of July. “There’s really no off days, unless you get hurt,” he said. “You get a week or two around Christmas, and then you’re working again. We race four days a week, four to nine races a day on different horses.” That’s a lot of horse-power.

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