11/15/2017 12:46PM

Van Berg still training as he battles cancer

Coady Photography
Jack Van Berg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg recently underwent surgery for cancer of his inner jaw but continues to train a stable that will move to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas shortly after the Churchill Downs fall meet ends Nov. 26.

Van Berg, 81, was diagnosed earlier this year with squamous cell carcinoma and underwent a second surgery Oct. 31 in Little Rock, Ark., in an attempt to eradicate the disease, said Van Berg’s son and assistant, Tom.

“Unfortunately, the latest operation failed to remove all of the affected cells,” said the younger Van Berg. “He has a scar from his ear to his Adam’s apple. He has another appointment Tuesday in Little Rock to see how best to proceed. The doctors are saying that at his age, chemotherapy and radiation are not options.”

Jack Van Berg was in Louisville this week attending to personal matters while his son and Sammy Almaraz, a Van Berg employee for 38 years, have been overseeing his horses on the Churchill backstretch for the last few weeks. Tom Van Berg said his dad has tried to be at the barn as much as possible, “but this latest deal has taken its toll.”

“He’s in a battle – but the horses are what drive him,” he said. “He’d rather come out whenever he can rather than withering away in the house. He’s been in the middle of renovating a house here in Louisville and he’s trying to see that through, too, but the horses are what keep him going. That’s his lifeblood.”

This has been a very difficult year for Jack Van Berg, who returned several years ago to his Midwest roots after being based primarily in Southern California for nearly 25 years. Besides the cancer diagnosis, chronic back ailments, and a bout with double pneumonia that required him being hospitalized in June, one of his five grown children, Tim, died in April at age 59.

Van Berg has won 6,522 races, fourth most in North American racing history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985 and is best known for his accomplishments with Alysheba, the 1987 Kentucky Derby winner and 1988 Horse of the Year.