06/03/2016 10:10AM

At 80, Van Berg back at Churchill looking to build business

Coady Photography
Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer, has returned to Churchill Downs, where he has about 30 horses.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jack Van Berg turns 80 on Tuesday, so it’s little wonder he’s hobbled. He’s overdue for a knee replacement, and his back has been absolutely killing him for years. And don’t even get him started on his heart.

“Got sick three years ago and almost died,” he said.

Amply recovered, Van Berg has returned to his old stomping grounds, Churchill Downs, alternately using a motorized scooter and a customized golf cart to go about his business as a trainer of Thoroughbred racehorses. Having moved into Barn 47 in April, it’s been 25 years since he last had a presence in Kentucky; 29 years since his greatest horse, Alysheba, won the Kentucky Derby before ultimately giving Van Berg his biggest career disappointment when he lost the Belmont Stakes; and 31 years since he followed his dad, the late Marion Van Berg, into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Indeed, a full generation has passed since Van Berg called Louisville home for any appreciable amount of time. He’s in the process of buying a house off Southern Parkway, only a couple of miles from Churchill, where he has about 30 horses on his shed row. He left Southern California for good when Hollywood Park was shuttered in December 2013 and has raced primarily in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma since then.

Van Berg looks back on his years in California with a certain wistfulness, if not bitterness. In the mid-1980s, he was swindled in a multimillion-dollar real-estate boondoggle and can still clearly recount the underhanded dealings of con men and lawyers and how he has known financial difficulties ever since. Those struggles coincided with a free fall in his racing fortunes.

It was a long way down. In the 1960s, Van Berg and his dad essentially invented the multipronged racing stable before D. Wayne Lukas became famous for it and modern-day phenoms such as Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen perfected it. In his heyday, Van Berg won races by the hundreds: Nine times from 1968-86 he was the North American annual leader in races won, and he’s still fourth all time with 6,472 wins.

California and Kentucky were his bases in the 1980s when Alysheba came to prominence. Although Alysheba was Horse of the Year in 1988, with his unforgettable Breeders’ Cup Classic triumph coming right here in the Churchill twilight, his defeat in the 1987 Belmont still cuts right through Van Berg. It came when the $5 million bonus for a Triple Crown sweep was in effect, and Van Berg’s 10 percent share would have made a big difference in his life.

Van Berg said he wanted jockey Chris McCarron to send Alysheba to the lead in the Belmont, but “Chris took him back,” with Alysheba winding up a distant fourth. “When he led all the way in the Woodward as a 4-year-old, Chris came back and said, ‘Well, I guess you were right.’ And I told him he was a year late and $5 million short.”

After Alysheba, Van Berg maintained multiple bases before selling his spacious farm located east of Louisville in 1991. He consolidated everything to California, and before too long, he wasn’t winning nearly as much. His last year for triple-digit wins was 1995, when he won 101 races, after which his numbers steadily dwindled. In his last 11 years in California, 2003-13, he won just 86 races from 2,376 starters for a paltry 3.6 win percentage. His last graded stakes victory came more than two decades ago with Onceinabluemamoon in the Grade 2 Las Palmas at Hollywood in October 1995.

“I didn’t have no stock,” he said. “If you’re not doing any good, the owners shy away. It feeds on itself.”

Statistics, however, do not come close to telling his full story. Van Berg is widely revered throughout the racing industry as a trailblazer, mentor, and folk hero who has made thousands of friends, given selflessly of his time, and cemented a remarkable legacy for the Van Berg name. His 2013 biography, “JACK: From Grit to Glory,” authored by his fellow Nebraskan Chris Kotulak, richly details his beneficent nature as a man and horseman after experiencing the tough love of a demanding father who died in 1971.

Still, that’s about the past, and Van Berg is more concerned about his future. His body might be giving way, but his mind and mouth still work just fine. On a recent Saturday afternoon, as well-wishers and longtime acquaintances stopped by his golf cart parked just outside the Churchill paddock, he insisted that his career is on the way back up.

“I’m gonna win another Derby,” he promised.

First comes the rebuilding plan, which is unfolding pretty well. Van Berg went 17 for 79 last summer at Lone Star Park and was an everyday factor this past winter at Oaklawn Park with 14 wins, 20 seconds, and 14 thirds from 111 starters.

His start to the Churchill spring meet has been a little slower, with just one winner from his first 19 runners. He has two entries for Sunday: Warrens China Doll in the sixth and I Am Miss Brown in the eighth. His decision to return to Kentucky was rooted primarily in the hope that owners will start calling again, given how his name still resonates. His main clients today are Mike Waters, David Korkames, Jerry Caroom, and the country music star Toby Keith, but he seeks more.

“Let people know I’m here to do business, will ya?” he asked. “I love claiming ’em. Anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, I’m ready.”

Except for the winter months when he returns to Oaklawn, Van Berg intends to remain stabled year-round at Churchill. He is the prodigal son whose return has been welcomed by his innumerable friends and admirers in this area. All he needs now is more horses – and winners.

“When I left California, I didn’t have money to eat on,” he said. “Now I’m back on my feet, you might say. I’m ready to get down to it.”