12/28/2017 3:16PM

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

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Jack Van Berg, who passed away Wednesday at 81, came close to winning four of the first five Breeders' Cup Classics.

More often than not, a conversation with Jack Van Berg would take place with him on one of his big, strapping ponies and you on the ground, paying close heed. The thing is, Jack never talked down to you, but you always looked up to him.

Van Berg did more with horses in his 81 years than can be sensibly measured. He bred them, foaled them, raised and broke them, then conditioned and raced them to be the best they were intended to be.

Hours spent hanging out at the Van Berg barn – any Van Berg barn – was a leap to a parallel universe in which the horses were hard-working royalty in service to a difficult cause. The atmosphere was one of quiet industry, the aromas barnyard sweet. Jack was always busy, but he always had the time to go stall to stall, making introductions, revealing details, apologizing for the occasional poor performance.

The ease with which Van Berg handled himself around horseflesh was intimidating. They nuzzled him, twitched and shook their heads in a form of equine signing only Big Jack could understand. Frank Brothers, an early Van Berg acolyte and more than half horse himself, called his mentor “the most naturally gifted horseman I’ve ever known.”

Emerging from the Nebraska heartland in the town of Columbus, the ninth of nine children born to Marion and Viola Van Berg, John Charles Van Berg tried higher education, and he put in his time with the family livestock business. But Van Berg’s true calling was at the track, where he began his rise alongside the runners owned and trained by his legendary Hall of Fame father.

Marion Van Berg was North America’s leading owner in purse money four times and in number of wins 14 times, including every year from 1960 to 1970. He died on May 3, 1971, at the age of 75. The funeral, as recalled in Chris Kotulak’s indispensable biography of Jack Van Berg, “From Grit to Glory,” was attended by thousands.

“It was as if the town had shut down,” Kotulak writes. “A genuine local, regional, and national hero had died.”

By that time Jack Van Berg already had led all trainers in wins three straight years. But on that day, he was Marion Van Berg’s youngest, grieving child.

“The day of the funeral I went out back and sat on a cattle pen fence for hours,” Van Berg told Kotulak. “I didn’t want to be around anyone. Dad and I were close.”

Over the ensuing decades, as Jack Van Berg built his own legend, stories of his father were always delivered to provide context. “No Marion, no Jack” was the steady message. But what Jack Van Berg accomplished transcended even the father’s fame, as well as rivaled the records of the game’s greatest practitioners.

In 1976, Van Berg was the first trainer in 55 years to top the national standings in both purses and winners.

In 1985, Van Berg joined his father in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.

In 1987, in the midst of Alysheba’s 3-year-old championship campaign, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races.

Van Berg beat champion Bayakoa with Little Brianne, twice, and finished second in a Preakness with the sprinter Bold Ego. He threw a fright into Charlie Whittingham in a Santa Anita Handicap when Herat, at 157-1, nearly beat Greinton. He won major stakes with Summertime Promise, Bold Style, Brindy Brindy, Mamselle Babette, Joachim, Hawkin’s Special, Charging Falls, Nell’s Briquette, and Almost Grown.

And consider this: Were it not for two heads and a nose, Jack Van Berg could have won four of the first five runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Van Berg set the tone for the national stables now rampant in the sport. He once was asked if he knew how many tracks he’d graced with his runners.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “How many tracks are there?”

The last of Van Berg’s 6,523 winners came on Nov. 17 at Churchill Downs with the 5-year-old gelding Star Dog. At the time, Van Berg was recovering from a second surgery for an aggressive cancer that had stricken his jaw. His son Tom was helping at the barn, but beyond that the idea that anything could mute the rumbling, countryfied voice of racing’s most cherished spokesman was heartbreaking. No one who had ever heard Big Jack emcee an event or ramrod a charity auction left the room less than energized by the unbridled enthusiasm of the man at the microphone. And it wasn’t just for show. Van Berg tried to spread the gospel of Thoroughbred racing wherever he went.

“When I talk to people I’ve found that they really want to know more about the sport,” he said some years ago. “They appreciate actually talking to someone in person who can give them answers.”

The answers sometimes were brutally honest. Van Berg decried the advance of drugs – both legal and otherwise – through the heart of the game. He worried that the romance of the horse was fading fast in the modern world. His hero, apart from his father, was John Wayne, whose name in the 21st century is more associated with an airport in Orange County than with Jack’s hidebound ethics of honor and hard work.

Jack Van Berg never wavered, and now Jack Van Berg is gone. The game was lucky to have him.