Most folks in Marion H. Van Berg's home town of Columbus, Neb. (pop. 13,500) are vaguely aware that he wins more horse races than anybody. They think that's nice, but it isn't what they mean when they say he "put the town on the map." The merchants measured Van Berg's stature in a full-page ad in The Columbus Daily Telegram last January 17, the eve of a testimonial dinner to him. It was a prosaic Ode to a Sales Pavilion. The pavilion belongs to Mr. Van, and so does the complex of animal pens that spreads to the leeward, fortunately, of his handsome home. Last year farmers from as far away as Montana brought 115,274 cattle and 73,938 hogs through Van Berg's sales arena. The auctioneer's fee was good for Mr. Van. The buyers' and sellers' money was good for everybody.
Late in 1962 Mr. Van put on a different kind of auction. With the racing season over, he sold off about 50 horses, most of them Thoroughbreds only by the broadest definition. Teddy Cox, columnist of The Morning Telegraph and Mr. Van's occasional Boswell, knew a dispersal sale when he saw one. Van Berg, he wrote, was "about to curtail his vast operations."
It figured. Mr. Van was almost 67, and his wife, two sons and seven daughters had been bugging him for a couple of years to pay attention to the doctor's warnings about his heart. He didn't need the money. His eldest daughter, Helen Karlin, was running the sales pavilion efficiently; his son Jack had become an accomplished horse trainer, and brother Bud was running a new pavilion in Sterling, Colo. Everybody was all right. Besides, Mr. Van had nothing left to prove. In 1960, starting almost twice as many horses (1,122) as the Light Brigade, he had won 221 races, a record The Morning Telegraph did not expect to see broken. His 205 winners in '62 had made him the winningest owner for the third straight year and the fifth time in eight years. The prize for the leading money-winning stable had eluded him, but that was hardly a feasible goal. Running his agglomeration of platers for petty-cash pots at third-rate tracks like Oaklawn Park and the Fair Grounds, he could hardly match the aristocratic cavalry of Calumet Farm, the leading looter for 12 of 21 years—just to name one.
Well, Calumet is over the hill, and you can't find King Ranch anymore—just to name two—but the purple-and-gold colors of M.H. Van Berg fly on. Last year, sending 1,453 animals to the post, Mr. Van rebroke that unbreakable record of his by winning 270 races. His $895,246 in winnings also led the nation. It was the first time one stable had taken both titles since 1948, when Citation alone brought back $709,470 for Calumet. Van Berg's biggest winner was Ramblin Road, who won $85,685.
March 21, 1966
A chart of Mr. Van's victory (by $5,325) in the money department would say he won "easily," but he had to stand off a late shopping spree by the runner-up, Financier Louis E. Wolfson. "You can't take anything away from Van Berg," said Wolfson's trainer, Burley Parke, in the fading hours of 1965. They couldn't, but they were trying. At Tropical Park and Santa Anita, Wolfson's minions were buying other people's favorites in the morning to win in Wolfson's flamingo-and-black in the afternoon.
"I don't want to say anything against Mr. Wolfson," Van Berg said recently. "He sent me a nice letter of congratulation after it was over." Some horsemen at the Fair Grounds did resent Wolfson's invasion of the claiming field. At least one suspected the purchases were, in fact, short-term leases and offered Van Berg that sort of arrangement. "I thought we ought to win with what we had," Mr. Van said.
In 29 seasons, starting more than 16,000 horses over 46 tracks, Van Berg has won 3,021 races and $8,161,933 in pots ranging from the $39,500 acquired by Vantage in the Charles W. Bidwill Memorial Handicap at Hawthorne in 1954 to the 15 bucks Bud Smith got for finishing fourth at Omaha in 1938. Around the race secretary's office at the Fair Grounds they try to explain how: "Knows his business...never runs an unsound horse...uses common sense...he's working when the others are getting warm in the track kitchen...knows how to read a condition book." All that, plus a sixth sense for "tradin'," which is what Mr. Van still calls the process, even the haggling that led up to his purchase of Ramblin Road for $55,000 last May 31. Tradin' was a way of life to Van Berg before his first shave.
His father was a farmer of indifferent success near Aurora, Neb. "He was a barber, too," says Mr. Van, "but he didn't like that a-tall. So he did a lot of horse-tradin'. They was workhorses then, the best of them worth $85. My dad always told me you had to get 'em just a little cheaper so they'd be easier to sell."
It may be a shock in Columbus, Neb., where Medicare is a dirty word, but their No. 1 rugged individualist came to town on an early wave of collectivism. ("There's a man," an admirer said at the testimonial dinner, "who came here with nothing but ambition. He doesn't want any help from any government. He's done it all himself.") Van Berg's ambition wasn't availing him much in Aurora early in 1933, when he ran into another horse trader, Pete Larson. "Pete had been up around Columbus and made some nice money," Van Berg recalls. "He told me that Loup River public power project [an early Roosevelt REA project] was coming in, and the place was really going to grow." Mr. Van kissed the wife and kids and went up the road to Columbus. The tradin' was indeed good, and by the fall of 1935 construction of the sales pavilion began. The rest was individualism.
For all his success, Mr. Van is unlikely to be nominated to The Jockey Club. He has never started a horse at Aqueduct or Santa Anita, where his fame parallels that of Emil J. Paidar, the name on the barber chair: everybody recognizes it and nobody knows who he is. His limited breeding program ("14 mares in foal is too many") annually wins a good share of the prizes for Nebraska-breds, but he hasn't had a really successful homebred since Rose's Gem finished up with $230,964 in 1963. And he was a happy accident.
"I bred my winning mare Rose Bed to Royal Gem II in 1953," Mr. Van recalls. "The next year I couldn't have touched him." That was the year Dark Star, another son of Royal Gem II, won the Kentucky Derby. That was an accident, too, but the sire's price went up higher than Van Berg would have paid.
Mr. Van has "thought about" shifting his stable's emphasis from quantity to quality and has tried. When he was about to breed his speedy stakes-winning mare Estacion he talked to a man who knew a man who had access to a share in Nashua. "They wanted $10,000," he says, "and another $10,000 if there was a live foal." Mr. Van told them thank you for the green persimmon.
"I could have had a service from that Ry-but, too," he recalls. "But they wanted $10,000 with no guarantee, and he hadn't got nothin' yet. Now I wish I had. But I really wouldn't want to train a bunch of horses and not run them, and that's what you do if you have that kind. I like action. I didn't run Ramblin Road at Hialeah just to tell people I'd run a horse in Florida. I ran him because I thought he could win."
He is also afraid of being influenced by sentiment—not his own but his family's. His wife and daughters persuaded him to run Spring Broker in the 1960 Kentucky Derby. The overmatched colt ran a nice, even eighth, and Mr. Van didn't like the kind of training he saw the 3-year-olds get at Louisville, anyway.
He does not coddle his horses. Last November 20, when Mortal Lock ran away from the pack at Sportsman's Park to put Van Berg in the history books with his unparalleled 3,000th victory, the 6-year-old gelding was making his 31st start of the year. A sentimentalist might have made Mortal Lock a pensioner in his old age and finally buried him in the Fair Grounds infield between Black Gold and Pan Zareta. That track, as well as Hazel Park, Oaklawn, Sportsman's and a number of others, would probably reserve Mr. Van a family plot, if he asked, in gratitude for the way he has filled their races—without, as Fair Grounds Racing Secretary Barry Whitehead puts it, being "picayunish" about conditions. Instead, Van Berg ran Mortal Lock four more times before the year was out, finally losing him for a $4,000 claim—which was, his dad would note with pride, $500 more than he paid for him in July.
And his compassion for his steeds' aches and pains is strictly pragmatic "My horse has a black eye," a groom told Mr. Van, as he entered the barn at the Fair Grounds on a Sunday afternoon in January. Mike's Red, a colt purchased for $30,000 last November, had a golf-ball lump bisected by a two-inch gash over his right eye. He had knocked his head on the starting gate the previous afternoon but had gone on undaunted to win the $7,500 Black Gold purse. Mr. Van glanced at the cut. Then he bent over to feel the horse's front ankles and nodded in satisfaction.
At his barn in Columbus the week before he had examined a filly who had been "fired," that mystic, soldering-iron panacea for inscrutable infirmities. The little holes were evident through the sickly white crust on her forelegs, and a visiting dignitary sucked in his breath in horror. "Better she should suffer now," Van Berg said, "than me later." Wasn't there an anesthetic? the visitor asked. "Yeah," Mr. Van Berg said. "We tried that Butazolidin a couple of years ago, and it was great. Only trouble was, the blistering didn't take."
"Only horse I got sentimental about," Van Berg says, "was Rose's Gem. Lost him for $12,500 and got him back for the same price. The other people's groom said he could have made a fast $2,500 just walking him in front of my barn, and he was right."
Van Berg's first starter was Julia R., who died in the fire that wiped out his original five-horse stable in June 1937. The first winner was Customize, who picked up a $385 pot at Omaha two weeks later and was claimed for $800. He had grabbed her for $700 at Riverside Park, an "outlaw" track in Kansas City, Mo., and that was where he saw Bud Smith.
The gelding was a 9-year-old when Van Berg claimed him for $800. "Didn't have a halter, so my man had to lead him back with baling wire," Van Berg recalls. "Ran him three days in a row at Omaha, because that's all you knew at the time, and he got beat a head by three different horses. [Actually, Bud Smith ran every other day, July 1, 3 and 5, and was claimed for $800.] The wife and the girls had a fit. They went and got him back. Wilma rode him in parades, and he was like a pet. He brought back 37 straight checks." As the late Colonel John R. Stingo said, "Memory grows furtive." Bud Smith won 22 straight checks, but he had that charming way of running "from out of it," like a poor man's Carry Back. He was still trying mightily in 1941, when he was 13 and the mile and 40 yards just wasn't in him anymore. On June 25 at Omaha he tried to go for 5½ furlongs, and how he tried. From "far back," the official chart in the dusty archives says, Bud Smith "closed gamely" and ran third. That was worth $30, his last check. They put him in a mile on July 5; he ran a flat 11th, and that was it.
But the world little notes nor long remembers the Bud Smiths. The floral-piece replica behind the dais at the testimonial dinner in Columbus on January 18 was of Rose's Gem, the money winner. Halfway through the speeches Van Berg's sons, Jack and Bud, tiptoed out of the Platte County Agricultural Society auditorium to prepare for the highlight of the evening. A little later they led in Mr. Van's Appaloosa pony, with his grandson up on the ornate saddle that his 625 attendant friends had paid for with their $2.50 tickets. Max Johnson, who has worked "a long time" for Mr. Van, had put on his five-gallon hat and ridden the pony several miles in the 0° morning, to insure that he would be tired and, therefore, amenable to the indoor appearance.
The dinner was bone-dry—although the society maintains a well-equipped bar upstairs—because Mr. Van does not drink. "I wonder," asked a local wise guy, "if Bud and Jack [34 and 29, respectively] smoke in front of their father yet?"
The answer is that the Van Berg who smokes (we'll never tell) does not when Mr. Van is present. "I don't think they drink," he says. "Anyway, I never saw them. I don't, because I saw a lot of drinking. My dad was a bright man, could do almost anything. But every once in a while—it could be harvest time, or he could have the best deal of his life coming up, and it didn't matter—he just wasn't any good for a while."
At home in Columbus, on the afternoon of the testimonial dinner, Mr. Van wanted to take some people out to the barn and show them Royal Course, the 3-year-old who won nine of 12 races last year and didn't get a call in the Experimental ratings. His wife (they will have their 50th anniversary next year), two daughters, one daughter-in-law and a couple of grandchildren scurried around to find his cold-weather clothing. "Do you see," his wife said, "how we pamper him?"
Mr. Van thought he was being pampered on Sept. 25, 1963 at Hazel Park, when he had a "minor cardiac" disturbance during the third race. He was carried to the first-aid room, and somebody shut off the closed-circuit television so as not to excite Mr. Van. He asked them please to leave it on, because he had a horse going in the fifth. After watching Jet Roger win, Mr. Van consented to get in the ambulance. "But not in the back," he recalls. "I knew the driver, and I sat up front with him." Set down for a week, he was back from the hospital in three days.
His doctor and his family are still urging Mr. Van to limit his operations. He agrees that he should, but for a different reason. "You can't get good help," he says, in the plaint that horsemen probably have been making since Bucephalus. "We ought to cut down to half the horses we have." That's what he was saying on the way in from the New Orleans airport January 23, and Jack, driving the car, was listening dutifully. At the barn Mr. Van felt Mike's Red's ankles and listened to Grand Stand's cough. Now he was talking to an exercise boy, about 16. "I have a message for you, young man," he said. "I saw your mother back home, and she says you should write more often." The boy nodded sheepishly.
Just then a car carrying two men stopped in front of the barn. After a few moments' conversation Mr. Van climbed in the back seat, and they took him to see a 4-year-old filly named River Sty. Two days earlier she had run on or near the lead for three-quarters of a mile in a mile-and-40-yard allowance race, then bled from the nostrils from a ruptured vessel, presumably in her pharynx. This may have been caused by exertion, a cold or more serious troubles.
A few minutes later the car returned, and the three men sat talking. "Give her to Cliff," Jack shouted when his father got out of the car. Mr. Van looked quizzical. "You did buy her, didn't you?" Jack asked. "Well, give her to Cliff." Cliff, a groom, had only three horses in his care.
"They wanted $7,500," Mr. Van said on the drive back to the motel. "I offered five. They said $5,500, and I said, 'Too much.' Then they said they already had an offer of $5,000." And then they had the silly old man right where he wanted them.
"They said they wanted to study it over until tomorrow," Mr. Van said, "and you know that ain't no good. So I said $5,250, and I gave them a check."
"Remember what you said on the way in from the airport?" Jack asked.
"Yeah," Mr. Van said, "I said we should sell what we got. But this one is going to make money. Or if she don't I made a mistake, and you can write it down."
A horse who bleeds once is just a horse who bled. The second time she becomes a bleeder, and she would be barred from racing by the Fair Grounds stewards. "But we ain't going to run her here," Mr. Van said. "We're going to send her to Hot Springs [Oaklawn Park] tomorrow, and she can run there. We'll feed her alfalfa and try a little vitamin K, but, anyway, we can run her." He didn't say it, but River Sty can run there in claiming races of $4,500 or even less, and, with that "bled" notation in a recent chart, nobody is likely to touch her.
"She's going to win us money, you see," Mr. Van said, "because we got a little edge."
Which, as Dad said, is what you have to have when you go tradin'.