Jack Van Berg: A Hall of Famer and a True Horseman

The late Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg with owner and friend Mike Waters at Keeneland during the fall 2017 meet. (Keeneland/Coady Photography)

Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg passed away on Dec. 27, 2017, at age 81. The Kentucky Derby-winning trainer who ranks fourth all-time in career wins in North America was profiled by America’s Best Racing correspondent Tom Pedulla in 2014. Van Berg reflected on the influence of his father, Marion, on his superstar horse from the 1980s, Alysheba, and on his enduring passion for the sport.

Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg did not hesitate when asked the key to his success. He immediately pointed to his late father, Marion, who is also enshrined at the Racing Hall of Fame.

“I had the best teacher in the world, my father,” said Van Berg, 77, in 2014. “That’s a huge advantage all the time.”

Jack Van Berg at Keeneland. (Keeneland/Coady Photography)

He grew up in Nebraska and came to dominate racing in that state by becoming the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha for 19 consecutive years (1959-'77). He set a record for most victories in a single season with 496 in 1976, a mark since broken. He led all American trainers in victories nine times.

While his father worked primarily with low-level claiming horses, Van Berg was able to compete at the highest level. Gate Dancer provided one of his greatest challenges. The horse was easily flustered by what was going on around him; those distractions could easily throw him off his game. The trainer was never discouraged, no matter how much Gate Dancer acted up.

“If you are a good horseman, you can figure that out,” said Van Berg, expressing his attitude toward every problem child that entered his barn. His patience and painstaking approach helped account for 6,523 career victories.

Van Berg tried all sorts of equipment before devising a set of earmuffs that helped Gate Dancer win the 1984 Preakness Stakes and the Super Derby.

There were no such issues with Alysheba.

“He could do things that were unbelievable,” the trainer said. “He was sound. He never had a pimple on him.”

There were no issues with Alysheba’s demeanor, either. The more attention there was, the more he enjoyed it. He was a ham.

“He had so much charisma,” Van Berg said. “The cameras would start flashing and he would prick his ears for everybody.”

Alysheba swept the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1987. The plain-spoken Van Berg blamed a devastating fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes on a poor ride from Chris McCarron. The trainer had urged McCarron to take the early lead, telling him Alysheba could gallop faster than the rest of the field could run.

But McCarron decided to take back a bit because he was concerned about the taxing 1 ½-mile distance. He wound up getting boxed in, denying Alysheba a legitimate shot at what would have been a $5 million bonus.

Alysheba would add to his credentials by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic to be the Horse of the Year in 1988 as Van Berg stuck with McCarron. When McCarron later acknowledged that he should have followed instructions, the trainer was his usual blunt self.

“You’re a year late and $5 million short,” he cracked.

Just as his father mentored him, Van Berg helped to send numerous other trainers on their way. Hall of Famer Bill Mott is most prominent among those. He also maintained steady communication with Billy Gowan, trainer of 2014 Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin.

“When I have a question, he’s the first one I call,” Gowansaid in 2014. “It’s not a veterinarian. It’s call Jack.”

Gowan added: “He’s the best horseman I’ve been around in my life. He can tell you a lot about a horse just by watching him gallop and checking his legs. Jack Van Berg is as good as ever came down the pike.”

Van Berg breathed new life into his career when he left Southern California at the start of 2014 for Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. He admitted that as he got older he was not as hands-on as he used to be. His passion, though, was as great as ever. 

“I’m up at 4 o’clock every day,” he said in 2014. “Ain’t nothing more exciting than getting a good horse in the barn. That will keep your heart beating.”

Facts About Jack Van Berg

  • Parents were Swedish immigrants.
  • Subject of biography entitled: “Jack, From Grit to Glory,” by Chris Kotulak.
  • Had considerable experience as an auctioneer.
  • Received “Big Sport of Turfdom Award” from turf publicists in 1987 for helping to promote sport.
  • Inducted into Fair Grounds Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

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