12/19/2013 3:44PM

Jay Hovdey: Van Berg gets last word on Hollywood closing

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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.

David LaKari More than 1 year ago
So if Hollywood is in such a bad neighborhood why they got to redevelop it
Frank Hoch More than 1 year ago
Well David, here is the long and short of it. GREED GREED GREED. The location of HP is perfect for RACING. The neighborhood has been questionable for MANY YEARS. When its all said a done, the project WILL BE a white elephant. People that live in the area won't be able to afford housing & people that can afford to buy DON'T want to live there. It will inevitably become section 8 housing. What will the politicians do then !!
Eugene Fletcher More than 1 year ago
I met Jack at Hollywood...he was sitting in his box and I told him a story about Alysheba...I didn't have to twist his arm to listen as he would to have just one more horse like that one....who wouldn't?? But a friendlier guy at the track you will never find...always liked him...always will...
kingsailor2 More than 1 year ago
Mr. Van Berg was one of the very few who showed up at the local government meeting several years ago to actually protest the planned "redevelopment" of HP.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
The city of Inglewood will make more from the new property in taxes, utilities ect. It was time , should of been a done deal 10 years ago. So the old sayin, one door closes another opens.....lets start a new one with Los Al in the O C. Watch Arcadia, the city after a few years won't want all that racing, seven - eight months of it. SA/Los Al 50/50,,,
Hadrian Marcus More than 1 year ago
If Los Al is the cornerstone for the future of horse racing in Cali...then turn out the lights, the party's over.
Frank Hoch More than 1 year ago
WRONG Cover 2.........Little taxes because the people that live in the area have little $$$. Those that don't live there will NOT COME. AIRPORT LANDING PATH and other reasons.
Bruce More than 1 year ago
I still have several mutual tickets from Woodbine the day that Secretariat ran his final race in 1973. Normally the tickets had imprinted random letters as a security code but on this day they were all imprinted with "Big Red". I think it was a terrific idea.
Elizabeth More than 1 year ago
I encourage anyone wanting mementos to go get their own meaning anything that isn't nailed down or whatever you can get that is nailed down. They are going to tear the place down anyway. In the old days when sporting venues closed that is what happened and no one had a problem with it.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Great suggestion. I'm sure many patrons will partake on Sunday
Chantal Smithless More than 1 year ago
Only problem is they will probably have private security there (NOT security employed by the track) so that NOTHING gets taken out of there that might provide ONE PENNY of profit to Bay Meadows Land Development! HMPH!
CraigACantrell More than 1 year ago
That's the problem with Horse Racing today...the people in charge don't listen to the people who keep the game alive...Hollywood Park should not be closing and California will be regretting this decision for many years to come...I'm tired of people saying its in a bad neighborhood...how many years did the fabulous forum sell out with the Lakers...learn to market your sport correctly and people will show up but continue to screw your fans and not grow the sport and this is what you get...kind of reminds me of when a certain site I was giving over 1200 dollars a year too decided to price gouge the loyal customers and some people got tired of it and have gone elsewhere to get the information...wake up Horse Racing world!
Robert Mosby More than 1 year ago
I wish Jack would come back to Columbus and revitalize Nebraska racing. I remember Jack training Joey Bob and British Fleet at Ak-Sar-Ben.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Thanks Jack...
You Feel Lucky More than 1 year ago
Some heady times for Van Berg in the 60s and 70s , tak'in a big ole slice of midwest racing. One of a kind.