Horse Racing : Van Berg Was a Longshot Winner

Woody Stephens thought Woody Stephens would win.

Wayne Lukas thought Wayne Lukas would win.

But the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer in 1984 went to Jack Van Berg, who didn't believe he was the winner even when a cinematographer for the Eclipse committee stopped by his barn to shoot some footage.

"I thought Woody would win, and Wayne had a big year, too," Van Berg said the other day at Santa Anita, just one of the tracks around the country where he runs his sizable stable of horses. Van Berg spends more time on airplanes than Henry Kissinger did during the height of shuttle diplomacy. The balding trainer's flying expenses run more than $70,000 a year and he may be the only trainer in the country with an 800 telephone number.

"Have to have that," the 48-year-old Van Berg said. "My help's calling in, every day." The number connects them with Van Berg's farm in Goshen, Ky., and the boss wants them to call in, even if they think they have nothing significant to report.

Van Berg's horses started 1,654 races last year--twice as many as Lukas' stable and about five times more than Stephens'. Van Berg won 258 races, a total that led the nation. He is the first Eclipse-winning trainer, however, to have led in wins since the award was begun in 1971. Previously, the voters had gone for the purse leaders, Laz Barrera and Charlie Whittingham, or trainers with major horses, Sherrill Ward with Forego, Bud Delp with Spectacular Bid, Ron McAnally with John Henry.

"Maybe this makes up for '76," Van Berg said. "I had a super year that year and didn't win."

That was the year Van Berg broke the records for wins with 496, and purses with $2.9 million. To put numbers like those on the board with what was mainly a claiming stable, he started horses in 2,362 races--an average of more than six a day. He didn't just break the record for wins, he pulverized it. The previous mark was 352 and a trainer hasn't come close to even 400 wins since then.

But Barrera was voted the trophy in '76. For more than anything else, he was honored because of his work with Bold Forbes, a reputed sprinter who not only won the Kentucky Derby, but also the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

Van Berg no doubt caught some voters' attention last year because of his work with Gate Dancer, the only major winner in his barn with victories in the Preakness Stakes and the Super Derby.

A bleeder and a colt who relentlessly leaned on any horses brave enough to try running inside him, Gate Dancer was a season-long problem. He was disqualified in the two biggest races of the year--from fourth place to fifth in the Kentucky Derby and from second to third in the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic. It was the first time in the 110-year history of the Derby that a horse had been disqualified for a foul during the running of the race.

Yet when Gate Dancer ran straight, he was the best 3-year-old around except for the ill-fated Swale. "Best horse in the Breeders' Cup, if he hadn't squeezed the other horse (Slew o' Gold)," Whittingham said.

To keep Gate Dancer in line, Van Berg outfitted him with almost as much equipment as a harness horse, and he was a bizarre sight with those purple hooded earmuffs, blinkers and a shadow roll.

"I'll have to admit, he looked like he was dressed to lead the Easter parade," Van Berg said. "He needed the earmuffs so he couldn't hear all the horrible things people were saying about him."

Van Berg will need a tuxedo so he can hear all the nice things being said about him at the Eclipse dinner on Feb. 8 at the Century Plaza Hotel. The $150-a-plate affair is black tie.

"I got a tux," said Van Berg, whose idea of fancy dressing around the race track is pointed-toe cowboy boots with a fresh shine and a flannel shirt buttoned at the top.

Early last year, Van Berg needed a tux for an event in New York. "I asked the guy in New York how much it would cost to buy the suit I was renting, and he told me $800," Van Berg said. "I wound up just renting it for $90."

Later, after Gate Dancer had won the Omaha Gold Cup at Ak-Sar-Ben, Van Berg was again in need of a tux for the victory party.

"I saw the exact same suit they had in New York, but it cost only $200," Van Berg said. "So I bought it. The Eclipse dinner will be the second time I'll wear it. One more and I'll be ahead of the game."

Racing Notes

Maybe this year's Eclipse voters--194 turf writers, representatives of the Daily Racing Form and racing secretaries--have already adjusted to the megabuck era caused by the million-dollar Breeders' Cup races. Jack Van Berg was only fifth among trainers in purses and Pat Day was sixth among jockeys, yet they were voted the awards. Day led the country in wins for the third straight year, but he's only the fourth jockey in 14 years to win the award without having been the money leader. Braulio Baeza, Sandy Hawley and Bill Shoemaker are the others.

"Pat's a deserving rider," Van Berg said. "No matter where he goes, he rides a lot of winners." . . . Wayne Lukas broke the record with $5.8 million in purses, but thought his Eclipse chances were good because he went over the mark before the $10-million Breeders' Cup day and without the benefit of multirace bonuses. John Hertler, Slew o' Gold's trainer, gained $1 million for his sweep of New York's three-race fall series, and Ron McAnally had $500,000 added to his total when John Henry won both ends of a New York-New Jersey set. . . . Chris McCarron, it turns out, rode 54 stakes winners last year, breaking Angel Cordero's '83 record of 48. Had that information been available to Eclipse voters, would it have affected their selections? We'll never know. . . . Princess Rooney, a divisional champion in '84, will be bred to Danzig, a popular young stallion.

When Shoemaker rode a quarter horse, Higheasterjet, to victory recently at Los Alamitos, it was not a first. Shoemaker remembers winning with another quarter horse about 25 years ago at Sunland Park. . . . Lukas might not have the best 3-year-old this season, but he could have the biggest. The strapping Feisty Fouts made his debut last Sunday at Santa Anita and ran fourth. Gene Klein's $225,000 yearling is named after Dan Fouts, quarterback of the San Diego Chargers. Klein is the former owner of the Chargers. The adjective in front of the surname is Klein's description of Fouts at contract time. . . . "You'll earn your $45 trying to handle this big guy," Lukas told jockey Pat Valenzuela in the walking ring. Replied Valenzuela: "It's $50." Added Lukas: "Whatever it is, don't fall off, because if you do . . . " Valenzuela finished the sentence: "I'll get hurt. That's a long drop."

Laffit Pincay's winless streak ended at 24 races Sunday. . . . John Henry, listed as one of the year's 25 most interesting individuals by People magazine, got three points in the Associated Press balloting for male athlete of the year. Technically, John Henry wasn't eligible, since he was gelded nine years ago. Tempestuous tennis star John McEnroe also polled three points, prompting an AP writer to say: "The horse's tail and the horse finished dead even." Triple Crown winner Secretariat finished fourth in the same poll in 1973.

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