12/23/2001 12:00AM

Berg's one-woman crusade

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ALBANY, Calif. - For most fans and owners, the fate of retired horses is a low priority. It's a case of out of sight, out of mind.

In northern California, associate steward Pam Berg has made it her business to care. She set up a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the care of injured and retired Thoroughbreds, the Glen Ellen Vocational Academy.

Berg jokes that three people are involved: "Me, myself and I." Berg, 57, cares for 25 horses on a 10-acre farm in Glen Ellen, in rural Sonoma County.

On a typical day, Berg arises at 4:30. One woman caring for 25 horses before driving one or two hours to whichever racetrack she is assigned must get started early.

She must feed them and eye them for physical problems, much as a trainer does at the racetrack. She must lead each to one of the six paddocks - ranging from one-quarter acre to two acres - she has built for them. Then she mucks stalls before heading to Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows, or one of the tracks on the northern California summer fair circuit.

After a full day at the track, she returns home and must feed and doctor the horses after she finishes mucking stalls. When daylight allows, she must also do the miscellaneous repairs needed to fences and stalls. It is hard work, but Berg perseveres.

"I'm a sucker for horses, I guess," she said.

Berg loves horses, always has, always will. She says she cannot remember a time when horses were not a part of her life and cannot imagine her life without them.

"My experience is a lifetime with horses," she said. "I grew up around them, cared for them, trained them, rode them since I was 5."

Berg originally had show horses and now has been involved with Thoroughbreds as an owner, breeder, trainer, and track official. She has been accredited as a steward since 1989, is a certified horse identifier and appraiser, and has been used as a legal expert in court cases.

Glen Ellen Vocational Academy is part dream, part reaction to something that was badly needed in northern California.

Berg's original plan went far beyond the care of retired Thoroughbreds. She originally envisioned a training academy for those interested in jobs in the racing industry.

"I felt there was a need, just from observation," she said of her plan to offer hands-on instruction to would-be hot walkers and grooms, leading up to preparation for people who wanted to take out a trainer's license. "Too often, I saw people who didn't know how to handle horses."

The academy part of Berg's plan never took root.

"I guess some of it was idealistic because of the economics of racing," Berg said. "But without the horse, you don't have the industry. I think it's imperative we take care of these horses both while in training as well as off the racetrack.

"If we had more skilled handlers, some of the injuries, some of the early retirements wouldn't happen."

Berg is disappointed that her plans for the academy have never reached fruition, but she said, "In my heart, the horses are more important."

The 25 horses Berg cares for are the maximum she can currently support. She spends many of her evenings writing grants, applying for funds from a variety of sources. One of her biggest regrets, she says, is that she is not better at writing grants and thus has not been as successful as she would like at getting additional funds for her horses.

Berg got her nonprofit status in 1995 and took in her first horse in June 1996. During the years, she has placed "a dozen" in homes and arranged for the adoption of countless others straight from the racetrack.

Two things concern Berg. "I'm surprised at the number of 2- and 3-year-olds I've gotten," she said.

She is also bothered by the lack of concern of many in the racing industry for the horses she and other retirement organizations see daily. In five years, an owner has never come to her farm to see a retired horse.

Most of her horses are obscure, but she does have Governor Elect, who came to her with 19 wins, more than $200,000 in career earnings, and so little cartilage in his left ankle that he can barely walk.

Four trainers bought out Governor Elect's owner to retire him and promised to help Berg support him, she said. But she said she has received only $100 from one trainer and $50 from another.

When she asked another trainer for a donation when he called to ask her to take a horse, she was told the horse was the donation.

"The frustrating part is they know what it takes to keep a horse," she said.

It costs Berg between $5,500 and $6,500 a month for feed, supplements, bedding and horseshoeing alone. Medications are an additional expense. Berg currently funds Glen Ellen with an annual stallion auction and a yearly raffle, as well as her own money. In the past, she has received donations from the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California tracks, and she has also received small donations from racing fans.

She says she hopes to encourage the industry to raise funds for the retired horses, much as jockeys receive some funds for insurance and medical payments through a portion of the uncashed tickets tracks have at the end of the year, or from licensing fees.

"There are a lot of people who make a good living from racehorses," she said, including herself in that group. "Without horses, we wouldn't be here."