10/16/2006 12:00AM

Before Pletcher came Big Jack


Now that Todd Pletcher has safely broken Todd Pletcher's record for stable earnings in a single season, some perspective might come in handy.

First, though, a tip of the green visor to the Pletcher organization, which is starting to make General Electric look like nothing more than a quaint little country store. To describe the Pletcher outfit as corporate, though, misses the mark. Think more along the lines of the New York Yankees, from about 1949 to 1962 (nine World Series championships), or the UCLA Bruins under John Wooden from 1964 to 1975 (10 NCAA titles). The sport each year was exciting, but the results were already written in stone.

Right now, at $23.1 million and rising, Pletcher has separated himself absurdly from all others holding a trainer's license. The Pletcher purse total clicks along like the number of burgers sold at McDonald's. The gap to second-place Doug O'Neill is more than $14.4 million. Bobby Frankel, who as recently as 2003 set the bar at $19.1 million, has had half as many starters as Pletcher and trails by $15.6 million. Bob Baffert, who used to rule, is $16 million in the dust. This is not competition, it's counting.

The American Racing Manual begins the history of top money-winning trainers in 1907 with James Rowe, whose total that year was a giddy $397,342. Rowe is better known as the trainer of Regret, Hindoo, and Miss Woodford.

Rowe's record stood (with the help of a ban on betting in New York) until 1930, when Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons banked $397,355 with the help of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox. The Fitzsimmons total represented a robust 3 percent of the entire 1930 American purse distribution of $13.6 million.

The Fitzsimmons mark fell in 1941 under the onslaught of Ben Jones, Calumet Farm, and Whirlaway. The Jones record of $475,318 lasted all of three years, when Jones himself upped the mark to $601,660 in 1944, then handed the torch to his son, Jimmy Jones, who became the first trainer to pass the magic million mark in 1947, with $1,334,805.

The Jimmy Jones record stood longest of all. It was not until 1964, 17 years later, that Bill Winfrey edged past Jones with a season total of $1,350,534. In 1966, though, Eddie Neloy crushed the mark, nearly doubling Winfrey's record with $2,456,250, led by Horse of the Year Buckpasser.

If nothing else, Pletcher is following in the footsteps of some significant racing names. Frankel's mark topped Wayne Lukas - Pletcher's mentor - and Lukas increased his own record four times after taking the top spot from Charlie Whittingham. Before Whittingham, Lazaro Barrera set earnings records in 1978 and 1979, with considerable help from Affirmed.

Thirty years ago, in 1976, Jack Van Berg became the first trainer since Sam Hildreth in 1921 to lead the nation in both purses and winners. His purse total of $2,976,196 broke Neloy's 10-year-old record, and Jack did it with a national stable chock full of claimers, with such young horsemen as Frank Brothers and Bill Mott handling the local chores.

Van Berg, however, did not simply sit at the head office and pull the strings. There was always a chance big Jack would show up on a moment's notice to lay hands on his horses.

"Back in my days, you had to see them," Van Berg said this week from his Hollywood Park headquarters. "They wouldn't let you be down as trainer unless you were there - at least every third day for sure. So I was on an airplane from somewhere to somewhere no less than every three days.

"Arkansas gave me trouble," Van Berg said. "I shipped in to Oaklawn and they said they had to know who was training the horses. I asked them, 'What if Barrera ships Bold Forbes in here?' They said they knew he trains him. I said, 'Well, I know who trains mine. If you don't want me down as trainer, I'll just load them up and leave.' Diane Alexander was my assistant, so they said she had to take the trainer's test. She never missed a question.

"I had horses in Maryland, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York," Van Berg said. "I'd travel between those spots and check my horses sometimes at night. And I was doing it in the claiming business."

Van Berg's credentials were later burnished by such major stakes horses as Preakness winner Gate Dancer and Derby-Preakness winner Alysheba, who was also Horse of the Year. In 1985, Van Berg was inducted into the Hall of Fame, where he will always be remembered alongside the other 11 trainers who have held the earnings record before Pletcher. Still, it was the manic 1976 season that burned Van Berg's name into the books forever.

"Pete Kaiser was working for me in New Orleans," Van Berg said. "That's when you could still fly in places all night long. I flew in one night and was checking horses, jogging them down that blacktop road, under the lightpost, 10 o'clock at night.

"After a little while I finished up and headed for the airport," Van Berg said. "Later I heard somebody was looking around and asked, 'Where's Jack?' Pete looked up, pointed at an airplane in the distance, and said, 'That's him up there, leaving just now.' I was still in the car, but he wasn't far wrong."