07/05/2007 11:00PM

Out of mind but not forgotten


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With all the action news pouring out of Hollywood Park lately, including the Gold Cup, the Oaks, the Vanity, the CashCall Mile, and a record pick six pool that apparently equaled the gross national product of Thailand, it was easy to miss a special little nugget tucked among the headlines.

Jack is back.

"I came out of the woodwork - a long time between drinks," exclaimed Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg as he greeted The Golden Noodle after her romping score in the $111,000 Landaluce Stakes, part of the June 30 Gold Cup undercard.

At six furlongs on Hollywood's synthetic surface, the Landaluce is the nominal championship event of the meet for 2-year-old fillies. The failure of recent participants to distinguish themselves down the line has rendered it ungraded and generally unloved, which is a shame, since its long and honorable history - as both the Hollywood Lassie and the Landaluce - includes such world-class winners as Miss Todd, Mira Femme, June Darling, Hot n Nasty, B. Thoughtful, Terlingua, and Serena's Song, as well as champion Landaluce herself.

Van Berg will take it, though, and with open arms. The last time he won a six-figure stakes race without significant restrictions attached was September of 1996, when he sent out Wheatly Special to win the Marie P. DeBartolo Oaks at Louisiana Downs. The subsequent decade has offered Van Berg little solace, as he floundered around with ordinary horses, winning at the fraction of the pace he had grown accustomed to during the first 30 years of his storybook career.

Even so, the opening line of a Landaluce Stakes story posted on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's website - "Remember Jack Van Berg?"- was both tone-deaf and out to lunch. Van Berg could have hung up his spurs 10 years ago, never set another saddle, and still remain a racing household name as long as Thoroughbreds turn left.

At the peak of his influence, Van Berg was averaging more than 250 winners a year, with a personal best of 496 in 1976 that stood as an American record until Steve Asmussen won 555 in 2004. Van Berg was a pioneer of the multi-track attack, with divisions spread throughout the land during an era in which local stewards required a head trainer to be on the scene more often than not. The bulk of his horses might have been claimers, but they got Van Berg's hands-all-over attention and responded accordingly.

Remember Jack Van Berg? Not really hard, for those with half a memory, especially since he trained Alysheba and Gate Dancer, won 10 national championships, took titles at seven different tracks, joined the Hall of Fame at the age of 49, and came within a nose and two heads of winning four of the first five runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic.

For all his success, Van Berg will be the first guy to tell you that his fortunes started going south when he tried to establish high-quality training centers in what should have been key locales in Kentucky and California. Instead, the ventures became Jack's money pit, distracting him from the things he does best, which is developing horseflesh and winning races.

So the mighty fall - not really a news flash - but the racing world took no pleasure in the hard times experienced by Van Berg. With an appropriate bit of prompting by track announcer Vic Stauffer, the Gold Cup crowd rose to cheer their larger-than-life hero as he stood with The Golden Noodle in the winner's circle. As for Van Berg, he was typically quick to shift the spotlight to the filly's owner, Bill Feeley, who bred and raised the Landaluce winner at his ranch near the southwestern Montana town of Roscoe.

"That's just what Jack needed," said Feeley, shortly after The Golden Noodle won by 3 1/2 lengths at 33-1. "I met him at a yearling sale in Montana. Jack had come up to be auctioneer. It was 10 or so years ago, when Jack wasn't doing all that well. But he's old-school, and I respect his approach. We got to talking about one thing and another, and I ended up sending him a few horses."

The Golden Noodle is by D'Wildcat, a son of Forest Wildcat, and out of the Beau Genius mare Golden Genie, a stakes-placed winner of about $270,000. The Golden Noodle - named by Feeley's companion, Marilyn Caruso, for the filly's loose and leggy stature - is one of only 91 registered Montana-breds from the foal crop of 2005.

"You can breed Storm Cat to a Secretariat mare and drop them any place these days," Feeley said. "They don't give a damn what the stub says on the back of her papers.

"Jack told me from the start that this might be the best filly he ever trained," Feeley added. "You don't know until you run 'em, but I'll tell you what, I think you've got a major player right here, the way she finished."

If all goes well, The Golden Noodle will run next on Labor Day in the Del Mar Debutante, and if Van Berg is right, she could make a mark in the division. Big Jack wasn't the guy first to utter the old racetrack saying, "A good horse is dangerous in anyone's hands." But with his voice-of-God baritone straight out of the corn-fed Nebraska heartland, it certainly sounds better coming from him. And in those big hands, responsible for more than 6,300 winners, a good horse can be downright lethal.