12/19/2013 3:44PM

Jay Hovdey: Van Berg gets last word on Hollywood closing


Hollywood Park management’s idea of a precious memento from Sunday’s final racing program in the 75-year history of the track is to imprint parimutuel tickets with famous tidbits from its storied past. This is either cynical or tone deaf – you be the judge – since a parimutuel ticket costs at least a dime, and if a player keeps it as a cheap souvenir they’ve either decided it is worth more than whatever the ticket paid, or they are hanging on to a losing ticket that extols the virtues of Lava Man, or Laffit Pincay, of which they already are deeply aware.

Thankfully, there is a much better way to mark Hollywood’s final day than with a flimsy scrap of paper. For those who prefer their nostalgia in the flesh, be sure and head directly for the clubhouse early in the day and spend a few moments basking in the all-American glow of a true Thoroughbred racing legend: Jack Van Berg.

Van Berg will grace Hollywood Park’s final day with a signing of his biography, “Jack – From Grit to Glory,” which is just the kind of souvenir that will stand long after Hollywood Park is leveled. Written by journalist and broadcaster Chris Kotulak, “Jack” is a fine and meaty read, chronicling not only Van Berg’s saga as a Hall of Fame trainer but also the history of horse racing’s first family of the heartland.

As an owner, Jack’s father, Marion Van Berg, led the nation four times in purses and 14 times in races won. Jack’s record includes 10 national training titles – nine in races and one in purses – plus an Eclipse Award for his 1984 season. In 1976, Jack Van Berg led both categories, something only five other trainers have done in the past 100 years.

Hopefully, the line will be long to buy his book or just shake his big, blacksmith’s hand. But for those who linger, Jack will have a story – of the old Nebraska days of Columbus, of beating My Juliet and Master Derby with Gray Bar, of the ear-muffed Gate Dancer winning his record Preakness, of Little Brianne beating Bayakoa, of Alysheba beating just about everybody. Inevitably, the tales will turn to Hollywood Park, and the healthy slice of the last 40 years the track has shared with Van Berg.

“I was in one of the old wooden barns when I first came out here in 1972,” Van Berg said earlier this week. “When Marje Everett built the new barns I moved over to 74 by the gap, and I was there a long time. Then when Laz Barrera passed away I moved over there, cleaned up that area out in front of it, and been there ever since.

“The swimming pool was right there across from me in 74,” Van Berg said. “I never swam my horses but maybe a couple times. But then they had that earthquake, and a wave of water came rushing over into my barn, then spilled the other direction onto the track.”

It was Van Berg’s spacious Barn 74 from which Alysheba sallied forth during large parts of three memorable seasons. Hollywood, however, was not his lucky track. Alysheba finished a close second to Temperate Sil in the 1986 Hollywood Futurity, a heartbreak nose behind Ferdinand in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then a distant second to Cutlass Reality in the 1988 Hollywood Gold Cup in the midst of his Horse of the Year campaign. Charlie Whittingham, from his barn just across the road and down a block, trained Ferdinand and Temperate Sil.

“He was a grand man,” Van Berg said. “Every time he beat me he’d say, ‘I told you, son, that I’d show you where Molly hid the peaches.’”

Like it does so many of his generation, the closing of Hollywood Park sticks in Van Berg’s craw.

“I’ve preached to everyone for a long time, it’s just about the best place to train a horse in the United States,” he said. “And if someone had wanted to, they could have made this property the greatest sports complex anywhere, located where it is.”

At 77, Van Berg has seen more than his share of racetracks bite the dust, including Detroit Race Course in Michigan and Garden State Park in New Jersey. The one that hurt the most, every bit as much as Hollywood’s end, was the close of Ak-Sar-Ben in 1995 in Van Berg’s native Nebraska.

“It was the slot machines in Iowa that killed it,” Van Berg said. “The politicians just gave up. You go back there to Omaha today and you won’t find anyone around there who’s still not furious at what happened. The saddest part was that Ak-Sar-Ben was operated as a non-profit track. That track helped people in small Nebraska towns buy fire trucks and schoolbooks.

“Something like Hollywood closing is hard to explain, and I’ve always tried to be a good ambassador for racing,” he added. “When I talk to people I’ve found that they really want to know more about the sport. They appreciate actually talking to someone in person who can give them answers.”

Van Berg is not training nearly as many horses as he once did, but his lifetime total of nearly 6,500 wins is astounding by any measure. The bad news on Sunday is that Hollywood Park is closing. The good news is that Jack Van Berg isn’t going anywhere soon.