'He meant the world to me.' Racing pays respects to Van Berg

January 09, 2018 03:19am
'He meant the world to me.' Racing pays respects to Van Berg
Photo: Courtesy of Santa Anita Park
By Bob Wisener 

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- A meticulous planner throughout a Hall of Fame racing career, Jack Van Berg set precise guidelines for his funeral service.

Van Berg, who died Dec. 27 at age 81 in Little Rock, Ark., after battling cancer and other ailments, specified that any tribute in his honor should come on a day with little racing activity -- and at a time after training hours, but before feeding.

With tears flowing freely yet with laughter pervading the air, Van Berg would have been in his element at a memorial service Monday in Horner Hall at Hot Springs Convention Center.

Big-hearted despite a gruff exterior, Van Berg wintered the last four years at Oaklawn Park, moving his base from California to Arkansas after one winner from 121 starts in 2013. With only one Oaklawn winner in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Van Berg had top-10 finishes in the local standings with 14 winners in 2016 and 20 last year. His horses earned $1 million last year for the first time since 2000.

Former Oaklawn announcer Frank Mirahmadi gave the eulogy and listed the trainer's accomplishments, his 6,523 victories ranking No. 4 all time. Van Berg won the 1984 Preakness with the enigmatic Gate Dancer before defining his career later in the decade with Alysheba, the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic. The 1984 Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer, Van Berg in 1985 joined his late father and mentor, Marion Van Berg, in horse racing's hall of fame.

"He meant the world to me," said retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, Alysheba's regular rider. "He meant the world to my family. He put us on the map with Alysheba. He was just a wonderful, wonderful man."

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, in town to ride at the Oaklawn meet starting Friday, also shared memories of Van Berg, a John Wayne-like figure on the backstretch. In town to pay his respects was Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who along with pallbearer Joe Petalino learned the trade under the nine-time national champion.

"He liked to teach," said Mirahmadi, "and anyone willing to listen was able to learn."

The first trainer to win 5,000 races, Van Berg in 1976 set a national record of 496 victories that stood for 28 years. Running lots of horses at lots of tracks, Van Berg "pioneered the concept of multiple stables," said Mirahmadi. "Someone asked him, 'How many tracks do you have horses?' Jack said, 'How many tracks are there?'"

Racing personality Chris Kotulak collaborated with Van Berg on the biography “JACK, From Grit to Glory — A Lifetime of Mentoring, Dedication and Perseverance.”

“Yes, I’m the guy who wrote the book,” Kotulak said Monday with a shrug. “There could be 40 new chapters, maybe 400 more, depending how many people knew Jack.”

Addressing Van Berg as if he were in the building, Kotulak said, “There isn’t a trainer from coast to coast who upon hearing your name wouldn’t stand up and give you a toast.”

Van Berg's coffin was draped in a blanket of roses, emblematic of Alysheba's 1987 Kentucky Derby victory. His stable colors of purple and gold were prominent at the ceremony, attended by an estimated 350 to 400 on a cold, overcast afternoon. Besides McCarron, Stevens and Mott, Hall of Fame trainers Wayne Lukas and Neil Drysdale also honored Van Berg, whose son Tom will take over his stable.

He was buried in Hot Springs' Crestview Cemetery.

Bob Wisener covers horse racing for The Sentinel-Record of Hot Springs, Ark., where he was sports editor for 37 years.


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