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.