Van Berg back in Breeder’s Cup winner’s circle
Three decades removed from Jack Van Berg greeting his champion horse in the winner’s circle at the Breeder’s Cup, a horse sharing his namesake greeted his son Thomas in the same spot on Friday at Churchill Downs.
Jack Van Berg, the Columbus native and Hall of Fame trainer who passed away in December of last year, trained Alysheba to Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes wins in 1987 and a Breeder’s Cup Classic title the following year.
Friday, in the undercard of Breeder’s Cup weekend in Lexington, Kentucky; a 2-year-old colt named for the Hall of Famer won his first-ever race pulling away from the field in the stretch to take the second race in a wire-to-wire victory.
Jockey Jon Court guided the horse to the win while Jack’s son Thomas prepared the colt for his eventual victory.
“When dad came back to the Midwest circuit, Mike Puhich and Mike Waters jumped in and backed him and gave him a resurgence to his career,” Thomas told the Paulick Report, a thoroughbred racing website.
“He had a couple great years before he passed. Mike Waters asked dad, ‘I want to name a horse after you sometime. Can I reserve the name?’ And Dad said, ‘Sure. You’d just better make sure it’s a good one.’ ”
Jack was born in Columbus in 1936 to Marion Van Berg, who also put together a Hall of Fame training career. From 1959 to 1977, Jack was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack in Omaha.
His horses won a record 496 races in 1976 earning him the honor of United States Champion Thoroughbred Trainer by earnings. He became the first trainer to win 5,000 races in 1987 when Art’s Chandelle crossed the line first at Arlington Park in Illinois.
Earlier in the year, a bay colt named Alysheba trained by Jack made a run at the Triple Crown with wins in the first two races before finishing fourth at the Belmont Stakes.
Alysheba then took second at the 1987 Breeder’s Cup before returning a year later with a win in his final career race.
Thirty years later, it was a horse named “Jack Van Berg” winning at Churchill Downs again, though in an undercard and not the prestigious Breeder’s Cup Classic. Regardless, the sentimental nature of the victory could not be denied.
“Mike was real close with my dad and he had trouble even discussing the funeral or dad’s passing. But the one thing he got out was, ‘Tom, your dad always said he had one more Derby left in him. I didn’t know it might be as a horse, but he said he had one left,’ ” Thomas told The Paulick Report. “That’s a storybook ending if it happens.”
Jack Van Berg the horse is owned by Waters’ Muddy Waters Stables.
The race was the third start ever for the horse purchased for $28,000 two years ago.
“He’s a neat little horse,” Thomas said. “He’s got some ability. He’s a decent colt.
“You know, Mike said, ‘If the discussion ever comes up of whether we need to geld him, that’s your decision.’ And I said, ‘No, don’t put that on me. I don’t want to get struck down by the guy upstairs.’”
Jack was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985 following his father, Marion, who received the honor in 1970. He trained horses to a fourth-best all-time North American mark of 6,523 wins, according to Equibase.