Jack Van Berg, who walked the barns of Southern California race tracks for more than 40 years and remained haunted by the Triple Crown he never won, died Wednesday in Little Rock, Ark., from complications of cancer. He was 81.
Van Berg, always adorned in a cowboy hat befitting his upbringing in rural Nebraska, is most known for being the trainer of Alysheba. The colt won the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was one race — the Belmont Stakes — from Triple Crown immortality.
“It was obvious my horse could gallop faster than most of those horses could run,” Van Berg told The Times’ Bill Plaschke on the 10-year anniversary of the Belmont loss.
However, Bet Twice, a colt that Alysheba had beaten in the first two Triple Crown races, was the best that day and Alysheba’s Triple Crown bid ended.
“Do I still think about that race? Sure I think about it,” Van Berg told Plaschke. “So does my banker. He has nightmares.”
Van Berg will be remembered for more than one horse. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 1985, before his Triple Crown run with Alysheba.
His horses ran 41,164 races, winning 6,523. His earnings totaled almost $87 million, mostly before the gigantic purses of today. His last race as a trainer was Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, when his horse Silver Turns Gold finished 11th.
He left Southern California and moved to Arkansas in 2013 after the closure of Hollywood Park.
“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said then. “It's ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore.”
Van Berg was born John Charles Van Berg on June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Neb. His father, Marion, also a successful trainer, won more than 1,500 races.
Jack dominated racing at Ak-Sar-Ben — Nebraska spelled backward — in Omaha for almost 20 years, from 1959-1977, where he was the leading trainer. He was the first trainer to win 5,000 races, a milestone he reached at Chicago’s Arlington Park.
Alysheba, who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1988, was not his only Triple Crown race winner; he won the Preakness with Gate Dancer in 1984.
Van Berg was among the first trainers to have barns at various locations across the country, causing him to grouse about spending too much time on airplanes. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, his primary barn was at Hollywood Park and he became a resident of the Airport Park View Hotel between the race track and the Forum until he left for Oaklawn in Arkansas after Hollywood Park closed.