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FAIR GROUNDS HORSEMEN REMEMBER LATE VAN BERG

Following the recent passing of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, several horsemen at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots have shared stories of the conditioner and how he has influenced their training careers.

A native of Columbus, Nebraska, Van Berg is the all-time leading trainer at the Fair Grounds having won ten training titles at the New Orleans oval, which include six consecutive leading seasons from 1965-71. In addition, he also holds the record for most victories during a single season at the Fair Grounds when he won 92 races during the Winter Meet in 1973-74. In 1985, Van Berg was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame and six years later in 1991, was inducted in Fair Grounds’ Hall of Fame.

Trainer Tom Amoss was a product of the Van Berg barn and began working for him in high school when he hot walked for Van Berg during Christmas break one year. Coincidentally, Van Berg was stabled in Barn 12 on the Fair Grounds backside, where Amoss is currently operates.

“I worked for him in high school right here in this very barn,” Amoss recalled. “It was my first job on the racetrack as a hot walker and it was about 1977 or 1978. Even then I had hopes of being a trainer one day and I always had a notebook with different things that I observed and wanted to stay with me for when I got to be a trainer. One thing that I learned from Van Berg that I still use today is his feed program. In today’s world, a lot of trainers give the horses premixed feed and that’s what they do. A vast majority of them do that, but we don’t. We have a recipe that we use that involves a lot of different products and I can’t tell you how often I get compliments about how great our horses look in the paddock. That is a direct tribute to the Van Berg feeding program.

“He instilled the importance of hard work and being at the barn,” Amoss added. “I don’t just mean in the mornings, but in the afternoons as well. It’s those things that always stuck with me. There are guys that can do it without being at the barn as much as I am, but for me it works if I am around as much as possible, and that’s the Van Berg way of doing things.”

Amoss continued to work for Van Berg during his college years and assisted the trainer’s Fair Grounds division which was supervised by trainer Frank Brothers, Van Berg’s assistant at the time.

“Van Berg was one of the first to have different operations spread throughout the country,” Amoss said. “You see that a lot with today’s trainers, but not back then. I went to work for Frank Brothers who was his assistant trainer and managed the Louisiana division of horses, so I didn’t get to see Jack that much and remarkably he remembered me. I don’t know how much of that is him trying to appease me when I say hello to him or if he actually does remember me but I’ll say this, he had a great memory. I’d like to think it was the latter.”

Van Berg also was responsible for getting trainer Wayne Catalano involved in the racing industry. Catalano often rode for Van Berg as a jockey prior to becoming a trainer.

“Jack Van Berg was a big part of my career and my life,” Catalano said. “Growing up, I was a young boy here in New Orleans and not doing so well in school. My uncle took me to the track and said, ‘You’re small enough if you want to be a jockey’. I didn’t know anything about the racetrack so he brought me and my brother to Jack Van Berg. I came here to the racetrack not knowing anything about the races or about the track or the backside or anything like that, but Jack really taught me a lot. I started working for Jack up in Chicago when I turned 16 and he taught me all about the horses and horsemanship.

“If it weren’t for Jack, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in right now in my life,” Catalano added. “He got me here. He’s very well missed and the horsemanship that he taught me brought me a long ways. He made you work hard and he was very strict but he was the kind of guy that would teach you and show you. He always helped everybody come along. He gave me a jump start in my riding career and later on when I was done riding and I started training he gave me another jump start there and even gave me a couple of his own horses. One year, he was short of an assistant at Keeneland go I just kind of filled in when I was galloping horses for him. It was toward the end of my (riding) career when I was trying to become a trainer so I was focusing on that.”

While trainer Al Stall, Jr. did not work directly for Van Berg, he was a friend of his and was stabled next to him during his final years at Churchill Downs.

“I knew him personally and I was stabled right next to him during his last couple of years over at Churchill,” Stall said. “Whenever he would be out watching his horses work on his scooter or when he was inside his truck on the backside, you would always see four or five people surrounding him. It was like he had his own little entourage.”

Stall shared a story of Van Berg taking him to airport following a race at Arlington Park.

“I remember he would take us to the airport sometimes when we had horses shipping,” Stall recalled. “One time leaving Arlington Park we were in a rush to catch a plane and I had never been so scared in my life, he was driving like a maniac. When we stopped at a toll booth the brakes were smoking, but we made our flight in time.”

In addition to his numerous accomplishments at the Fair Grounds, Van Berg was a nine-time leading trainer in North America by wins and the leading trainer by earnings in 1976. He won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer in 1984, the same year he trained Gate Dancer to a victory in the Preakness Stakes. His most well-known runner was 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was named Horse of the Year the following year. This year, Van Berg enjoyed his most successful season in 20 years this year with 42 victories and $1,223,503 in earnings. He will be missed by many horsemen at racetracks all across North America.

Trainer Jack Van Berg Dies at 81

Entered Hall of Fame in 1985; trained Alysheba.

 

the son of Hall of Fame trainer Marion Van Berg, died Dec. 27. The 81-year-old conditioner had been hospitalized at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock, Ark., due to complications from cancer.

Van Berg, who entered the Hall of Fame in 1985, ranks fourth on the all-time win list for North American-based trainers with 6,523 victories. His runners earned more than $85 million.

His most famous runner was Alysheba, winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1). After being named champion 3-year-old male of 1987, he was dubbed “America’s Horse” and earned Horse of the Year and champion older male crowns following his victory in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Alysheba, who entered the Racing Hall of Fame in 1993, raced for Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer and earned a then record $6,679,242 (surpassing John Henry) with 11 wins from 26 starts.

Van Berg also had classic success with Gate Dancer, winner of the 1984 Preakness.

Among the many accomplishments of Van Berg, he was the first trainer to reach the 5,000-win plateau on July 15, 1987. In 1976 he set a record for the most wins in a year with 496 and was also the leading trainer by earnings. He won the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer in 1984.

Van Berg’s beginnings were in the West, where he sent out his first winner in 1957. A few years later, he was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska for years, where he was able to be the leading trainer in the country by wins nine times between 1968-86.

At the time Alysheba came along, Van Berg had more than 150 horses in training for some 35-40 clients. The majority of his horses trained at his center near Goshen, Ky.

A $500,000 sale yearling bred by Preston Madden, Alysheba “was a little light because he hadn’t been prepped that much,” Van Berg said in 1987. “He had an air about him. He was very well balanced, and he had that look.”

While not as accomplished as others for the classics, Alysheba had an entrapped epiglottis, and a new technique was performed by Dr. Scott Merrell following a second-place finish in the San Felipe Handicap (G1). Alysheba returned to the track to finish first in the Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at Keeneland, but was disqualified and placed third. In a famed Derby stretch run where he bumped with Bet Twice and almost fell, Alysheba rallied under Chris McCarron to win by three-quarters of a length.

The BloodHorse‘s editor, Ed Bowen, wrote after the Derby: “The day after he won the Kentucky Derby with Alysheba, Van Berg spoke of his father’s gruffness with affection. As a boss, Marion Van Berg had a tendency to call his male help ‘boy,’ regardless of whether the individual being addressed happened to be his grown son.

“‘I never sassed him, because I had too much respect for him,” the son said, and he recalled that his father’s technique of helping others learn often was to let them try for themselves, and then point out their mistakes.”

After Alysheba’s win in the Preakness, he failed to land the Triple Crown finishing fourth behind Bet Twice, Cryptoclearance, and Gulch in the Belmont Stakes (G1). Later that year Alysheba finished second to fellow Derby winner Ferdinand in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The following year Alysheba won seven of nine starts and closed out his career with four straight grade 1 wins: the Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park, the Woodward Handicap at Belmont Park, the Meadowlands Cup Handicap, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, where he defeated runner-up Seeking the Gold by a half-length.

Van Berg later moved his base to Southern California, but he was unable to maintain his winning level. A mid-1980s land development deal soured, and so did his business. He resurfaced in the 2010s at Oaklawn Park and began to rebuild his stable. He was recognized of late motoring around the backstretches on a scooter and he would often watch his horses train from a pickup truck parked on the grandstand apron.

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