06/07/2012 11:18AM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Van Berg returns to Belmont Park


Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg says he can’t remember the last time he was at Belmont Park. Since it was Oct. 6, 1991 – when Fit to Scout finished fifth in the Grade 1 Beldame – and since Van Berg turned 78 years old Thursday, he can be forgiven if the memory of that day has faded.

Van Berg was set to make a rare appearance here this weekend when I’ll Have Another attempts to do what Van Berg’s Alysheba in 1987 could not – win the Triple Crown.

Van Berg, who ranks second all time in races won with 6,411, is coming to New York in part to visit his great nephew Mike Karlin, an equine surgeon at the Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center in New Jersey. Karlin is attending a veterinary clinic near Belmont on Friday and will take his uncle to the races on Friday and Saturday.

Van Berg, who was scheduled to arrive in New York at 5:30 a.m. Friday, was planning to sample the Triple Crown flavor on Friday while visiting some past acquaintances such as Allen Jerkens, Bill Mott, and Tom Albertrani.

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While Van Berg still laments Alysheba’s loss in the Belmont, he said this week that he will be rooting for I’ll Have Another – and especially trainer Doug O’Neill – to break the 34-year Triple Crown jinx.

“I always thought I should have had the last Triple Crown horse,” Van Berg said by phone from California. “I’m rooting for Doug and [owner Paul] Reddam, who is a great fan of the sport and a great backer of the sport.”

Van Berg said that O’Neill, who was recently suspended 45 days by the California Horse Racing Board for a horse having a total carbon dioxide violation, has been portrayed “unduly unfair” by the press.

“Doug’s done a damn good job,” Van Berg said. “He’s had some trouble, but there are five or six of them trainers that have a helluva lot worse record than he’s got.”

Van Berg, who has 18 horses stabled at Hollywood Park, and O’Neill are not necessarily close. O’Neill did consult Van Berg on how to train I’ll Have Another in between the Derby and the Preakness. O’Neill was not planning to work the horse between those races, and Van Berg gave him the confidence not to do it.

“I told him ‘You put a hell of a lot of pressure on me,’ ” Van Berg said.

Van Berg said the story of I’ll Have Another being bought by a groom for $11,000 and then pinhooked for $35,000 is “is one of the greatest stories in racing.”

In 1987, Van Berg thought he was going to win the Triple Crown with Alysheba. He wanted jockey Chris McCarron to put the horse on the lead, but McCarron didn’t do it. It may not have mattered as Bet Twice won by 14 lengths and Alysheba was fourth, beaten a nose and a neck for second.

“I told him in the paddock he should be in front, and he looked at me like I was stupid,” Van Berg recalled. “I said ‘He can gallop faster than these horses could run.’ ”

Van Berg said that after McCarron rode Alysheba to victory in the Woodward Stakes in September 1988, McCarron told him “You’re right.”

“I said you’re a year and three months too late,” Van Berg said.