BY JIM WELLS
Despite numerous changes in thoroughbred racing over the last three decades, time has stood still in some ways for Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. Perhaps because he sticks by tradition, by loyalties, attention to detail that matters and, most clearly, his friends and long-time colleagues.
When Van Berg became the first training champion in Minnesota history after the 1985 season at Canterbury Downs, the man who handled his barn in Shakopee was Joe Petalino. The man who groomed the masked marvel Gate Dancer for Van Berg the previous year was Sammy Alvarez. Both men are a part of Van Berg’s life even today. Alvarez still works for him. Petalino, a trainer in his own right, stays in close, even daily, contact.
Of the thousands of horses Van Berg has saddled in the intervening years he is generally recognized for one horse above all, the remarkable Alysheba, the horse too tough to quit, even under nearly catastrophic circumstances in the 1987 Kentucky Derby.
Others will ask him about Gate Dancer. Those close to the start of Minnesota pari-mutuel racing might bring up Forkintheroad.
There are countless others, as well.
The son of a Hall of Fame trainer, Marion Van Berg, horse racing was a natural part of life to young Jack growing up in Nebraska. There didn’t seem to be much question about an occupation when he came of age, and even long before.
Van Berg, now 79, has seen just about all there is to see in his industry. He has nothing left to prove yet still campaigns horses at Lone Star Park, where he is located now, at Oaklawn Park and at Remington Park. He has given starts to some of the leading names in the business, including one-time assistants and now trainers of note themselves, Bill Mott, a Hall of Fame inductee, and Frank Brothers.
Van Berg had 36 winners to lead all trainers at Canterbury in 1985, was fourth with 28 winners the following season and had 10 during his final season here in 1987. He doesn’t recall his last time in Shakopee but will be on hand during Saturday’s card to sign copies of his book, Jack, From Grit to Glory.
It is impossible to imagine he will go the entire day without voicing one or two thoughts on the state of racing 2015, what he thinks needs fixing or what has changed that needs reinstatement.
Before any of that transpires, someone is certain to mention the remarkable similarity between Van Berg’s voice and that of John Wayne, or that his father’s name was Marion and so was Wayne’s before he changed it.
Wayne’s last wife, Pilar, was a painter and presented Van Berg with a portrait she did of the Hollywood legend, signing it, from one legend to another.
The picture disappeared along with the California ranch that Van Berg lost, a chapter of his life that is vividly detailed in the book, written by Chris Kotulak.
There are fascinating chapters, too, about Alysheba and Gate Dancer. Alysheba went to his knees after clipping heels with Bet Twice at the top of the stretch in the 1987 Kentucky Derby, pulled himself up and won by ¾ lengths.
Van Berg recalls clearly what trainer Willard Proctor told him after that race. “Most horses going a mile and quarter are looking for somewhere to lay down at the eighth pole,” Proctor said. “Alsheba was on his knees and got up and still beat them.”
Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham had a comment, too, regarding Alysheba’s calm demeanor, the way he went about the job of winning the race. “He’s not even sweating,” Whittingham said. “ You could throw a handful of flour between his legs and none of it would even stick.”
One of Van Berg’s sharpest memories of his years at Canterbury Downs was a stakes race won by Forkintheroad, Canterbury’s Horse of the Year in 1986. Actually, the memory was more in regard to the horse’s owner, Gordon Molitor. The race was the 1986 Chaucer Cup and the rider was Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. “Gordon was beating on my back the whole time,” Van Berg recalled. “I kept saying not to worry, that with Jerry he’d win.”
Some of that flour Whittingham mentioned might stick on Van Berg if you pick the right topic about the state of today’s game, about the corporate intrusion that has affected it on so many levels. Just simply about changes that in his opinion deter the average fan.
“If you read the Daily Racing Form now you’ll see all these goofy conditions that just confuse the average racing fan,” he said. “And people don’t want to bet on short fields, five or six horses. They want to win something for their dollar. And I’d like to see us go back to the times when fillies ran against the boys.”
Or the prices that fans pay today for parking, admission and concessions, leaving very little in many cases for the average person to wager.
Perhaps what Van Berg finds most annoying, in racing and in society at large, is what he terms lack of accountability. “People get bad tests all the time and nothing happens. They just keep racing, even end up in the Hall of Fame,” he added.
Van Berg doesn’t leave any doubt about where he stands on any issue a person cares to broach. Come to think of it, that other fellow, the one with the voice like his, didn’t leave much unanswered either.