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When training horses is the family legacy
By Marty McGee
Theirs is a shared heritage, rife with similarities that resonate through much of the racing world. In the cases of the five people profiled here, their common bond is a father who has been a winner – a big winner – during years and years of success, men whose considerable influence permeates not just their racing operation but their family lineage as well.
These five followed their fathers into racing, although not necessarily as trainers, and all with varying degrees of success. Bart Baird, Tom Van Berg, and Jimmy Jerkens – modest, earnest, and affable all – became aware at relatively young ages that their dads were giants in the racing game and that matching their training feats would be near impossible. Baird and Jerkens are still hard it, while Van Berg vectored in a different direction a few years ago.
Scott Hazelton, for his part, dove headfirst into racing just days after graduating from Arizona State University in 2004, although his tools were not a pitchfork, halter, or condition book, but a microphone and notepad.
Trisha Vance, meanwhile, revels in the behind-the-scenes anonymity of being an assistant to her father, a venerated horseman who knows the true – and ironic – meaning of a bad beat after suffering a life-altering injury unrelated to the inherent dangers of his profession.
Following are their stories.
Bart Baird chose this path. Well, the racetrack part, not the heredity part. Baird can’t help it that his late father, Dale Baird, won more races (9,445) than any Thoroughbred trainer in North American racing history before his untimely death nearly six years ago. The younger Baird, unlike his two siblings, followed in his dad’s legendary footsteps by becoming a trainer.
“Actually, it’s impossible to follow in the footsteps of someone like my dad,” Bart Baird said in early August at Barn V in the stable area at Mountaineer Racetrack in Chester, W.Va. “You don’t even try. You just don’t. I tell myself, ‘Be yourself and do the best with what you’ve got.’ It’s all you can do.”
Although reluctant to do so, Baird, 49, can boast one of the proudest legacies in racing. He is among those with the rare DNA of racing royalty, the sons and daughters of American trainers who have dominated their profession while compiling the most wins of all time. And his dad is No. 1 on that list – by a mile.
Dale Baird was a living legend when he died at age 72 on Dec. 23, 2007. While hauling an empty horse trainer, he was involved in a multiple-vehicle accident on Interstate 70 in Indiana on one of his frequent missions to buy horses too slow to compete elsewhere but perhaps fast enough to win at Mountaineer.
Bart Baird was in a movie theater when the accident occurred.
“I’d left my phone in the car, and when I came out, it’d blown up with like 50 missed calls and texts,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ ”
Granted, his father was the proverbial big fish in one of the smallest ponds imaginable, winning races by the fistfuls on a one-track circuit that for much of its history served as a decrepit repository for unwanted beasts. But, by the numbers, Dale Baird’s feats were so monumental that even the upper crust of American racing saw fit to acknowledge his accomplishments as he was honored with a Special Eclipse Award in January 2005 in Beverly Hills, Calif., less than three years before his death.
“The best thing is he got to accept it himself when he was still alive,” Bart Baird said. “It’s still very, very special to us. I keep the trophy for his 9,000th win at my house and my sister has his Eclipse at her house. You can see it right when you walk in.”
Today, Bart Baird has about 20 horses in his care at Mountaineer and lives nearby on the 12-acre farm he inherited from his father. His older brother, an attorney, lives in the family’s home state of Illinois, and his younger sister lives in Indiana; neither has ever been seriously involved in racing. Since he went out on his own in 1995, Bart Baird has won 627 races – a modest number, especially in comparison to his dad – but enough to carry him and his dad beyond a combined milestone of 10,000 wins, which no other father-son tandem has ever achieved.
“Looking back, it’s amazing what my dad did around here,” Bart said, waving his arm toward other barns. “He filled up three of these barns and people treated him with great respect.”
That was the professional side of Dale Baird. He also had a personal side.
“To me, he was always just my dad,” said his son. “That’s all he’ll ever be.”
Few horsemen compare to Dad
Before Dale Baird passed him in 1990 for most wins, Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg held the No. 1 position in that category (he is now No. 4, with 6,417). Two of his sons, Tim and Tom, worked closely under him as stablehands and assistants.
Tom Van Berg, now 44, worked for his dad in Southern California for about four years in the early- to mid-1990s. This was in the aftermath of Jack Van Berg’s most memorable years (1987-88) with the great Alysheba, winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby and 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and that season’s Horse of the Year.
“Tim was at Santa Anita and I was at Hollywood,” Tom said. “By the time I’d gotten out of school and really got into it, Dad’s operation had been pared down quite a bit, which actually is one of my great disappointments, not having experienced it when it was at its peak.”
Still, Tom Van Berg said he spent enough time with his father to “learn a whole lot” from him and is using those lessons in adulthood. He trained a public stable for about nine years before saddling his last starter in 2008. He now lives in the suburbs of Louisville, Ky., working full time for Len Ragozin, the speed-figure maven based in New York.
“My dad had an incredible amount of passion and energy and a knowledge at his fingertips that was truly amazing,” he said. “I haven’t met many horsemen I could compare to him. I’ve known some great trainers, but I seriously don’t know if they were the horseman he was.”
Jack Van Berg, 77, is the son of the late Marion Van Berg, also a Hall of Fame trainer, and Tom believes his dad was constantly striving to live up to his own father.
“I do think he was always seeking his dad’s approval,” Tom said.
Tom Van Berg, a married father with two sons, said he maintains a loving relationship with his dad, but that he – fortunately or not – was lacking the same sort of father complex his dad may have had.
“What I’m doing now keeps me involved in the game enough,” Tom said. “I found that the business end of training is too much for a guy trying to raise a family. It’s a very tough way to make a living, even if you’re as successful as my dad has been.”
‘The Chief’ as the standard
In the pantheon of great father-son trainer combinations, there are a number that stand out, notably the Calumet Farm duo Ben Jones and his son Jimmy, both inducted into the Hall of Fame. Besides those with 100 percent Hall of Fame lineage (see accompanying box), there are a number of other top father and son duos, including Hall of Famer Hirsch Jacobs and his son, John, who won the Preakness and Belmont in 1970 with two different horses, Personality and High Echelon; Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, widely recognized as one of the greatest ever, and his son, Michael, who won the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Skywalker; and the late Dickie Dutrow and his sons, Tony and Rick, the latter of whom won the 2008 Kentucky Derby with Big Brown.
Also of note – and this list is by no means complete – are the Barreras, Bennetts, Delps, Engelharts, Gavers, Jacobsons, Joneses (Farrell, Gary, and Marty), Kellys, Laurins, Mandellas, Martins, Pennas, Proctors, Schulhofers, Smithwicks, Von Hemels, and Whiteleys.
Perhaps the most appreciated of the enduring father-son combos is Allen Jerkens and his sons, Jimmy and Steve. Allen Jerkens, 84, is as revered as anyone who ever set foot on racetrack soil, while Jimmy, 54, also has done very well for himself, winning more than 600 races since going out on his own in New York in 1997 and sending out two winners of Breeders’ Cup races.
For Jimmy Jerkens, a worthy lifetime goal would not necessarily lie in becoming the trainer his dad is, but the man.
“I think the most admirable thing about ‘The Chief’ is that even with all the incredible success he’s had, he’s never really stepped on anybody’s toes or taken anything out of anybody’s mouth,” Jimmy Jerkens said. “Everything has been on the up-and-up and well earned. He’s true blue.”
Jimmy Jerkens has a twin, Julie, and their older siblings are Allen, 61, a sportscaster in Tulsa, Okla., and Steve, 56, who has won 363 races since 1976.
Jimmy Jerkens said his dad contemplated semi-retiring last year by “maybe just having a few head and kicking around down there at Calder” in south Florida, but that his attachment to New York and being surrounded by most of his family proved too strong, “And besides,” Jimmy noted, “[2012 multiple graded stakes winner] Emma’s Encore got good and he had another reason to come home.”
Jimmy Jerkens said the examples his dad set at the track and at home are worth emulating.
“We probably still go to dinner two or three times a week,” he said. “A lot of the employees I’ve had are people he’s had. I’ve never really felt any pressure to live up to what he’s done because everybody knows ‘The Chief’ is one in a million and can never be duplicated. We’ve all been enormously proud of him since we were young and realized what he was all about. One of the best things is we’re still extremely tight as a family. There’s never been any estrangement at all.”
Dad opened the doors
As alluded to by Jimmy Jerkens, there can be a double-edged sword to having a father of great accomplishment, in racing or any endeavor. Depending on circumstances, expectations for the son or daughter can be burdensome, sometimes unreasonably so, and sometimes the child will openly rebel or simply remove themselves from a situation that would lead to unflattering comparisons to their father.
And then there is the nice, smooth, gleaming side of the sword, the side familiar to Scott Hazelton. His dad, Richard Hazelton, was an icon in Chicago and Phoenix before retiring from training in May 2011 with 4,745 wins (since 1963), still seventh-most of all time.
“Being my dad’s son opened a lot of doors to me,” said Scott Hazelton, who in nine years at HRTV has become one of the racing network’s most showcased broadcasters. “Here I was a young guy that nobody knew out on the backstretch at Santa Anita, and Bob Baffert would almost shout out, ‘Do you people know who this kid’s dad is? King Richard! Are you kidding me? His dad should be in the Hall of Fame before any of us!’ It gave me a kind of instant credibility that you couldn’t possibly get anywhere else.”
Scott Hazelton, 31, said he had no interest in being a trainer, particularly when he was younger and “my mom and dad would drag us out to Hawthorne or Sportsman’s Park every day. I just wasn’t that into it then.”
However, his older brother, Steve, did enjoy spending time with the horses, and he worked as a longtime assistant to his father while also running his own small stable, winning 67 races from 1992-2005. Steve Hazelton currently works as an assistant to Roger Brueggemann in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Richard Hazelton, now 83, lives in retirement with Scott and his family in Sierra Madre, Calif., where he plays poker at a senior center twice a week and “is very happy,” according to his son.
“Everything my dad has done for me, I’m only too glad to give back,” Scott said.
As long as he needs her
There are common threads in the stories of people whose fathers have been big winners on the track – love, loyalty, sacrifice, and mutual appreciation are woven inextricably through their tales. Not many outsiders get to know both the public and private personas; birthrights are the keys to the privilege.
Clearly the majority of these stories are exclusive to men, but not in the case of Trisha Vance. Her father, David Vance, has won 3,081 races, which rank him 26th all-time, although Trisha believes that total could be higher if not for the events of Dec. 9, 2007, when David Vance’s sports-utility vehicle skidded off an icy interstate ramp on his way to Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.
“The day it happened, Dad handed me the condition book and said, ‘Here, you take care of the horses and Lynn [his wife] will take care of me,’ ” recalled Trisha Vance, 48. “That’s pretty much been our arrangement ever since.”
David Vance, 73, still has mobility in his upper extremities but is wheelchair bound. Before the accident, he was extremely active, escorting all his horses to and from the track at Churchill Downs and also getting into their stalls on a daily basis. Their stable is down to 12 horses.
“I think what frustrates him the most is he can’t actually get down and get underneath the horses and touch their legs,” Trisha Vance said. “Now, it’s me checking all the legs, and we have to hope and believe he’s taught me enough.”
Trisha Vance has two brothers, Tommy and Travis, both of whom live in Arkansas and work outside of racing.
“Tommy and I were around the track the most, and he actually trained a little on his own,” she said. “But even in grade school, I was the one out there every day during spring break and the summer. I went everywhere with Dad. I had the passion for the horses just like him.”
David Vance trained for years for Dan Lasater, the leading owner in North America four straight years (1974-77) and conditioned the million-dollar-earner Royal Glint.
“That’s when I got so hooked,” she said. “We’d win a couple, three would get claimed off us, and Dad would claim four more. I was like, ‘Ooh, this is fun.’ There was always action. Obviously, it’s different now.”
Trisha Vance’s admiration for the way her father has persevered through adversity is virtually boundless – as is her willingness to serve under him as long as he needs her.
“I’m still here,” she said.
good story Marty !
Lots of race track families out there with long careers: Ben Stutts, Sr, George Stutts, Ben Stutts Jr and Charlie Stutts. Family on the track go back to the 1920's with Harry Stutts who was a well known jockey of his time. It's in the blood.
A good writer and a nice person.Good article. Met you Marty at the Hilton during one of their handicapping tournaments about fifteen years ago. While we were talking one of my selections was dq'd at 8-1.
Well done. --APlattner
Excellent column. If NBC were smart, they would make this story part of the Breeders' Cup broadcast.
For me, this really is the best part about this sport. There are so many stories out there, about the people and the horses. Nice piece...thanks for providing insights into the lives of some very interesting people.
Good story, if family is involved in the training game, it naturally makes for a better business. It takes a passion to be a trainer and that passion must pass on!!!
Great story about some of racing's most noteworthy and decent people.
How about Tommy Heard's daughter who trains in Florida? Richard P. Schmitt
'Seeking Dad's approval' - Nuttin' wrong with that certainly not in these Families.
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