01/08/2018 8:06PM

Fellow racetrackers see off Van Berg at Hot Springs funeral


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It was said during Monday’s funeral for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg that he had a hand in planning his own service.

By all accounts, it was Van Berg’s final winner.

A crowd estimated at 350 to 400 spent an overcast afternoon at Van Berg’s colorful ceremony, held in Horner Hall at the Hot Springs Convention Center here.

Folks from all walks of life remembered Van Berg. Those who spoke told stories from the track that made Van Berg a racing legend, and they also told stories from the heart that shed new light on the Hall of Famer’s generosity and love for people.

Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame rider who won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Van Berg trainee and 1988 Horse of the Year Alysheba, traveled in for the service from Lexington, Ky.

“He meant the world to me,” McCarron said Monday. “He meant the world to my family. He put us on the map with Alysheba. He was just a wonderful, wonderful man. I’m glad I got to talk to him on Christmas Day.”

Van Berg died two days later in a Little Rock, Ark., hospital, after battling cancer in his jaw and congestive heart failure. He was 81.

Van Berg has horses stabled at Oaklawn, which opens its meet Friday, and they will be trained by his son Tom.

Those attending Monday’s funeral were greeted by a striking stage area where Van Berg’s coffin was draped in a blanket of red roses that called to mind the 1987 Kentucky Derby win with Alysheba. The colors of the curtains behind it were alternately gold and purple to reflect his stable’s colors.

Frank Mirahmadi, a longtime track announcer, gave the eulogy and included some of the life lessons Van Berg took from his father, fellow Hall of Famer Marion Van Berg.

“Marion was strict,” Mirahmadi said. “He made Jack work. The No. 1 thing he taught him was to be a gentleman and never go back on your word.”

Mirahmadi said trainer Mike Puhich “came with a great word” to describe Van Berg - “genuine.”

“He would meet a stranger and show an interest in them immediately, asking questions and paying attention,” Mirahmadi continued. “If he saw that person a year later, he would remember everything they talked about.”

Mirahmadi also gave a statistical rundown of Van Berg’s career. Van Berg ranks fourth among trainers in wins with 6,523; won nine national training titles; was the first trainer to win 5,000 races; and set a record for trainer wins in a year in 1976 with 496.

Roger Clinton, brother of former president Bill Clinton, said he was introduced to racing many years ago by Van Berg. Jockey Gary Stevens recounted a funny tale of traveling out of state to work a horse for Van Berg, while others told stories of Van Berg’s longshot winners, how he encouraged them in their personal goals, his ability to move horses up, and his willingness to share his knowledge with competing trainers.

Joe Petalino, an Oaklawn-based trainer who galloped Alysheba, said Van Berg wanted his funeral to be mindful of horsemen’s schedules. Van Berg arranged to have the service held on a day with little live racing, and after morning training but before afternoon feed time.

Following the two-hour ceremony, Petalino, who has been one of Van Berg’s closest confidants, joined the stage area with other pallbearers to usher Van Berg to his final resting place, Crestview Cemetery in Hot Springs.