Updated on 01/02/2018 11:47AM

Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg dies at 81

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Jack Van Berg, shown here in October, trained Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year Alysheba.

Jack Van Berg, the Hall of Fame trainer who conditioned 1988 Horse of the Year Alysheba, died Wednesday morning in a Little Rock, Ark., hospital. He was 81.

Van Berg had been battling a number of health issues, including cancer in his jaw and congestive heart failure, according to his son, Tom Van Berg. He died at Baptist Health Center. His children had been with him in Arkansas.

“He made it till break time,” a somber Tom Van Berg said Wednesday. “He fought as hard as he could. His body just gave out.”

Jack Van Berg was an institution in racing, universally respected by his peers and the sport’s fans alike. His training feats earned him a place in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985, following the lead of his father, Marion Van Berg, who entered the Hall in 1970. Jack Van Berg through Tuesday ranked fourth all time among trainers in North America with 6,523 victories, according to Equibase. Van Berg won nine national training titles from 1968 to 1986. He earned an Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer in 1984.  

“It’s a very sad day in racing,” said Frank Brothers, an assistant to Van Berg throughout the 1970s. “He would be one of greatest horsemen of my time, that’s for sure, and I owe a lot of my career to him.”

Bill Mott, who spent the late 1970s working as an assistant to Van Berg, echoed those sentiments Wednesday.

“Jack was really a great horseman,” said Mott, a Hall of Fame trainer. “If you gave him the right horse, he’d get the best out of him. He was a good teacher for me.”

Van Berg was the king of racing in his native Nebraska, and his reach later expanded to Southern California, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, and Arkansas. He first made national headlines in 1976, when he set a record for trainer wins in a year in North America with 496.

“He was probably one of the first guys to really have one of the largest stables – set up at different locations,” said Mott. “Jack was in Chicago, in Detroit, had horses at Rockingham and Suffolk. It would be as many as three or four locations at one time, and that was kind of a new thing at that time. He’d be on the airplane a lot – travel all night to get to the next place.”

:: Hovdey: Van Berg's boots will be hard to fill

Van Berg made national headlines in 1984, when he won the Preakness Stakes with the hooded wonder Gate Dancer. Van Berg was back in the national spotlight in 1987 with another 3-year-old, Alysheba. He would be a career-defining horse. Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1987, and the following season capped his career with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. He was voted the 1988 Horse of the Year for owners Dorothy and Pam Scharbauer.

“He’s up there with Dorothy, and they’re winning the Derby,” said Ken Carson, an adviser to the Scharbauers.

The Scharbauers first met Van Berg in 1985 on the recommendation of Dr. William Lockridge.

“We all met at the 1985 summer sale, “ Carson said. “We met him right there at the hotel for lunch, went from there to the sale, and he bought four yearlings that year, and one of them was Alysheba.

“We went a lot of miles with [Van Berg]. He certainly was one of the greatest horsemen I’ve ever been around. Horses just trusted him.”

Van Berg also had a big heart, said Carson, often buying doughnuts in the early-morning hours before training and passing them out to various folks, like a woman working in a toll booth, another at a service station, and security personnel at the guard shack at Santa Anita.

“When he had Gate Dancer, he’d go and feed him doughnuts,” said Carson.

Mott said he remembers Van Berg delivering Thanksgiving turkeys to those in need, among other acts of charity for the underprivileged.

“He loved horses, and he loved people,” said Mott.

That attitude made Van Berg a horseman’s horseman, known for taking first-class care of his horses and his staff.

“He was like my dad for all those years,” said Oaklawn-based trainer Joe Petalino, who galloped Alysheba for Van Berg. “He was just a good friend. We got to be real good friends. When he came back here, we got to be closer friends. I’m going to miss him greatly.”
Brothers said Van Berg left his mark on so many in racing.

“I think anybody who was around him was a better person for being around him,” he said.

Though Van Berg's numbers had declined from the heady days of the 1970's and 80's, he was going through something of a renaissance in 2017. His 42 wins and over $1.2 million in earnings were his best in 20 years.

Van Berg is survived by four children – Tom, Tami, Tori, and Traci. A second son, Tim, died in April.

Services will be held Jan. 8 in Hot Springs, Ark. A visitation is from 9 a.m. to noon Central at the Caruth-Hale Funeral Home at 155 Section Line Road, then at 2 p.m. a service will begin at Horner Hall in the Hot Springs Convention Center.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance or the Humane Society of Garland County. 

Jack C. Van Berg

Born: June 7, 1936, Columbus, Neb.
Died: Dec. 27, 2017, Little Rock, Ark.
• Elected to Hall of Fame, 1985, joining his father, Marion Van Berg
• Won Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer, 1984
• Trained Alysheba, the 1988 Horse of the Year and at the time richest horse of all time with almost $6.7 million. Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Breeders’ Cup Classic among other major races for Van Berg
• Also won Preakness in 1984 with Gate Dancer
• Led nation in races won nine times
• Won 496 races in 1976, a record that stood until 2008
• Was the first trainer to win 5,000 races
• Fourth-leading trainer of all time by wins, with 6,523
• Among his successful former assistants are fellow Hall of Famer Bill Mott and Frank Brothers