08/04/2010 1:55PM

Big Jack and the big mare


DEL MAR, Calif. – Jack Van Berg is on a mission. He is determined that as many people as possible wrap their ears around a song about Zenyatta by country singer Liza G. Fly. Big Jack won’t exactly perform it for you, and it’s not like he’d be downloading Fly’s music video onto his iPad and shoving it under your nose. But he will hum a few bars if pressed, and there is something contagious about his enthusiasm for this latest slice of the evolving Zenyatta phenomenon.

“She’s starting to call me Colonel Parker,” Van Berg said with a grin, invoking the name of the promotional guru who got the ball rolling with Elvis way back when.

“Zenyatta,” now gone viral with YouTube and iTunes access to go along with tubthumping on TVG and HRTV, is a pretty good song, catering to those who like both kinds of music: country and western. I tend to shy away from anything that requires the services of a banjo and a Cajun accordion, but that’s just me.

Any time, though, you can make lyrics work when using such archane terms as “three-eighths” and “hip number seventy-three,” along with lines like “you feel the ground rumble/and then you’re behind her,” I will step back and defer to taste-makers like Van Berg. Halfway through the song, I had a flash of the spirit and rhythmic drive of “Oh Yoko,” by John Lennon, and I was calmed. I know for a fact that John Shirreffs, the Zenmaster himself, knows what Lennon was talking about when he wrote, “In the middle of the night I call your name.”

For those who feel, however, that Van Berg’s talents could be put to better use, take a number. Despite being one of the finest, classically trained horsemen of the last half-century, the big-fisted Nebraskan stands as a reminder that reputation alone these days won’t even feed the cat. Jack’s stable at Hollywood Park has its share of manes and tails, but no one is spending any real money his direction, and winners of significance have become few and far between.

That is not, by the way, Van Berg you hear complaining. In public, he worries loud and long about the state of the game and the care of the animals, but never turns attention to himself, unless you twist his arm. Even then, he’d rather tell you a story about his legendary dad, Marion H. Van Berg, or Alysheba, one of the best horses of the modern era, or the erratic Gate Dancer, a Preakness winner who came within the length of Big Jack’s forearm of winning two runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Hopefully, Van Berg will dish out a healthy serving of those stories Monday night, at the Del Mar Grand Hotel, where he and fellow Hall of Famer Ron McAnally will be honored at the annual affair sponsored by the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation. Although they’ve made more than their share of history over roughly the same period of time, the two trainers are pretty easy to distinguish. McAnally is the one who collects Frederick Remington sculpture, while Van Berg posed for most of them.

The Gregson Foundation, named for the man who trained 1982 Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol, is dedicated to providing college scholarships for the children of backstretch workers. One of them is 2008 Gregson Foundation scholarship winner Samuel Almarez, who is studying architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

“His father, Sam Alvarez, has been with me since he was 15 years old,” Van Berg said. “And his boy is as fine a young man as God ever created. That boy will make something of himself because he’s been able to go to college, and because the Gregson people helped him get there.”

In a perfect world, Van Berg would have something to throw in against Zenyatta on Saturday, when she is scheduled to run in the Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar. He’s had his share of good mares, including Little Brianne, Fit to Scout, Nell’s Briquette, and Mamselle Babette. There also was Van Berg’s winner of the 1990 Del Mar Debutante, Beyond Perfection, a name he would loan to Zenyatta if he could.

“I’ve seen a lot of great mares in my day,” Van Berg said. “Ruffian was awful good. And Rachel Alexandra, you can’t take nothing away from her. But I’ve seen Zenyatta do things I’ve never seen the best colts do.

“She comes from dead last every time,” he continued. “She’s got in trouble, overcome obstacles. She’s never had a rabbit for her to set the race up, and she’s had paces where they were walking up there.

“I’ve watched her train from Day 1, before she even started,” Van Berg went on. “When she gets rolling, it seems like she’s taking her one stride to everybody else’s two or three. Last time she ran at Hollywood Park, when it looked like she was beat, it looked like she just looked over at that other filly and took off that last little bit.”

Van Berg was talking about the Vanity Handicap, in which Zenyatta reeled in the accomplished St. Trinians in the final few strides. Alysheba, winner of the 1987 Derby and Preakness and 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic, was similarly dramatic.

“Alysheba was so smart, he always knew what he was doing,” Van Berg said. “In the paddock, he’d always stick his butt up in the air, but he’d never kick his feet out. He knew he’d hurt himself. People said how much charisma he had, but this mare’s got more than I’ve ever seen.

“There in the paddock, she’ll do what I call her Michael Jackson moonwalk. And the more people holler for it, the more she does it. Then, when she’s running, it’s like she can talk. ‘You guys think you’re gonna beat me? I’m gonna lay you down.’

“And just wait,” Van Berg added, “‘till you hear that song.”