Oh, Give Me A Phone...

Wherever he roams, Jack Van Berg, the winningest trainer in horse racing history, proves he's a long-distance operator
April 24, 1988


Trainer Jack Van Berg, fresh off his early morning flight from Newark to Los Angeles, bombs along the Harbor Freeway, heading toward Santa Anita racetrack in his cream-colored Jeep Wagoneer with the vanity license plate ALYSHBA. Van Berg, 51, steers with his left hand, punches in numbers on his cellular phone with his right hand and between calls talks about his triumphant weekend in New York City. The day before, he was given the Big Sport of Turfdom award by the Turf Publicists of America, and his beloved racehorse, 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, won an Eclipse Award as the best 3-year-old colt in the nation.

"You should have heard the applause when Alysheba's name was announced," he says. "None of them other horses that won got cheered like that." The phone rings. The phone is always ringing. He picks it up. "Yeah." Pause. "Ken, how you doing?" Pause. "I told you I'd have something for you, so you don't have to look nowhere else." The guy at the other end is somebody Jack has promised a job to. Van Berg expertly wheels the Jeep in and out of freeway traffic, tucking the receiver between his neck and shoulder while reaching across the steering wheel to flip the directional with his right hand. "I told you exactly, I didn't stutter." Long pause. The caller can't be a close friend of Van Berg's, or he would know that Jack has a photographic memory. "I got something for you. It'll either be in New York or California." Pause. "O.K., pardner. Don't worry about it. I'll call you."

And he will. Van Berg is always just a phone call away. AT&T loves him: He spends about $4,500 a month on phone calls and has so many phone numbers that if they were all listed in one place, they would take up half a page in the phone book. He even has his own 800 number. The only time you can't reach him by phone is when he's on a plane. The airlines love him, too. He spends $60,000 to $70,000 a year on plane tickets—and he always travels coach.

True, there are phones on airplanes these days, but that's the one place Van Berg doesn't use them. After all, a man has to sleep sometime. What Brahms's "Lullaby" is to an infant, a humming jet engine is to Van Berg, who has the enviable ability to fall asleep moments after taking his seat on an airplane and wake up refreshed at the end of a flight.

Van Berg needs to stay sharp. While most top trainers worry about maybe 40 or 50 horses, he keeps tabs on some 250. He has horses stabled at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in California, Belmont Park in New York, Laurel Race Course in Maryland, Turfway Park in Kentucky, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., plus a whole bunch of babies at his farms in Goshen, Ky., and Hesperia, Calif. There are trusted assistant trainers at each of the tracks, and their job is to train the horses the way Van Berg tells them to.

He hooks a right off 210 East onto Baldwin Avenue, steers through the entrance to Santa Anita and pulls up outside his barn. Rrrriiiing. The phone in the tack room is ringing as Van Berg walks in. It's one of his owners, looking to buy another horse. Jack has one in mind, a beautiful filly, he says. He promises the prospective buyer he'll do what he can, then heads over to the racetrack. Every few yards, people greet him. Tomorrow, Feb. 7, brings the Strub Stakes, Alysheba's first start as a 4-year-old. Someone calls out, "Hey, Jack, is Alysheba gonna win tomorrow?"

"Hell, yes," he replies.


At precisely 4:50 a.m. Van Berg leaves the suite he leases at the Airport Park Hotel and heads to Hollywood Park, just down the street. He arrives at 5:01 a.m. and immediately makes his rounds of the barn, stopping in each stall to feel the legs and ankles of the 40 horses he has stabled there, while his assistant trainer, Donald Ropp, gives him a running commentary on the status and condition of each animal. Van Berg is being followed by an entourage of TV people who are making a video about the training of horses. Penny Fires, who heads up the project, says she chose Van Berg because he is a horseman's horseman, a trainer's trainer. "We wanted somebody who is really respected in the industry," she says. "Jack was the first person who came to mind. Everybody knows he's the best."

Insiders have long known how good Van Berg is: He saddled his first winner in 1952 and last year counted his 5,000th, more than any other trainer in the history of the sport. But in the horse racing business, you don't get real respect until you win a Triple Crown race. It wasn't until 1984, when his colt Gate Dancer won the Preakness, that a lot of people finally took notice. "I've had a tag all my life as a claiming-horse trainer," says Van Berg, "and everybody thinks if you train claimers, you can't train a good horse. Good horses are actually easier to train."

At 5:40 a.m. Van Berg hops back in the Jeep and heads over to Santa Anita to work Alysheba. It's still pitch black outside as he pulls into a gas station and announces, "I'm gonna stop here and fill up both my tanks." While the Jeep is being gassed up, he dashes across the deserted street and buys coffee and donuts. He eats constantly and loves food; it is the necessary fuel for a workaholic who seems never to stop moving. Back on the road again, he is asked if he's worried about Alysheba in the Strub Stakes that afternoon. "Well, I can't sit here and tell you I don't worry," says Van Berg. "But I have more confidence in this horse than any horse I've ever put on a racetrack. He don't never lie to you. He does everything with so much grace. He's a genuine athlete."

At Santa Anita, Van Berg fields a few phone calls and then walks over to the main track with Alysheba. The colt is on his toes, dancing and full of himself. Jack watches his star gallop and then, satisfied, gets in the Jeep and drives back to Hollywood Park. On the tack room walls here are pictures of his two heroes: One is John Wayne and the other is his father, the late Hall of Fame trainer Marion Van Berg.

The father taught the son well, and Jack never fails to give his dad credit for everything he has accomplished. "My father was a genius," he says, "and the greatest horseman who ever lived." Mr. Van, as Marion was called, was a stern taskmaster and disciplinarian, and young Jack, who grew up in Columbus, Neb., often chafed under his demands. "When I was a kid I was scared of my father. He could ride you to the breaking point and then make you feel like a damn fool for being mad at him. The older I got, the smarter I found out he was. And now, I thank the Lord every day that I got to come up under someone like that."

Rrrriiiing. Van Berg answers the phone in the tack room. "Hello. Yeah, yeah." He listens for a while to the caller, a horse owner. Van Berg is mildly irritated. "Hell, you've told me so many different things, I feel like your wife," he says. "I don't know what to believe." He laughs, hangs up, and heads outside where he mounts his pony, Red, and leads a set of horses to the track.

At 10:30 a.m. he's back in his hotel suite getting dressed for the races and talking on the phone at the same time. In one corner, lined up neatly in two rows, are a dozen pairs of well-worn cowboy boots. His collection of 30 or so caps, each with a different patch on the front, sits on a portable clothes rack. His wife, Helen, who usually stays at their Hot Springs, Ark., home, is in Los Angeles on a rare visit, having flown to California with him from New York. She has a bad case of jet lag. Says Jack, "I have an abundance of energy, and it just about kills anybody trying to keep up with me. Helen can't sleep on airplanes; that's why she can't travel with me."

"It's hard not seeing Jack much," says Helen, "but I'm a loner. I can entertain myself."

On a table, prominently displayed, is another portrait of John Wayne. Van Berg has the same slow-talking drawl, and he may be one of the last men on earth who removes his hat when a lady gets on the elevator. He has a courtly, old-fashioned manner toward women that would irritate the average feminist, but hey, he isn't doing anything the Duke wouldn't do.

It's a beautiful afternoon at Santa Anita, and when the crowd applauds Alysheba in the paddock, he starts bucking and kicking his heels in the air. "He's a showman," says Van Berg. "He always does that when people clap for him." Alysheba is giving away three to nine pounds to the other five horses in the 1¼-mile Strub, but he still wins it by three lengths. Understandably, Van Berg is ecstatic. "This is as good a horse as ever lived," he gushes. "Alysheba is my best friend." Helen gives him a look. "I'm sorry, honey," Jack says to her. "You're my wife, and I love you. But he's my best friend."


At 5 a.m., Van Berg arrives at Hollywood Park. Rrrriiing. Rrrriiing. People are phoning from all over the country to congratulate him on his victory in the Strub. He spends all morning on the training track. At 10 he leaves to take Helen to the airport, then returns to train some more horses, then goes over to his hotel suite to continue his interview with the TV people and to pack for a trip to England. Eddie DeBartolo is building a new racetrack, Remington Park, in Oklahoma and wants Van Berg to go to Newmarket to evaluate something called Equitrack, an artificial surface being used on the training track there.

At 3:30 p.m., without so much as a catnap, Van Berg heads for LAX, checks his bag, and moves to a bank of pay phones. After making a few calls, he hits the airport gift shop, buys five Louis L'Amour paperbacks, two candy bars, some newspapers and a package of teriyaki-flavored beef jerky. "This better be good," he says. "It cost enough."

On the plane to London, Van Berg goes right to sleep. He does wake up for dinner. "That's the best airplane meal I ever had," he says. "Hell, even the coffee's good."


The plane arrives 34 minutes early. At 12:03 p.m., London time, Van Berg is on his way to Newmarket, 100 miles to the north. After checking in at the Moat Hotel in Newmarket, he makes three or four calls to the U.S., meets the general manager of Remington Park, wolfs down a pub lunch, and settles in to discuss Equitrack with the company's representative, who produces an itinerary comparable to that of a visiting statesman.

First stop, the training course at Newmarket, where Van Berg grabs a handful of the artificial dirt surface, rubs it between his fingers and fires off questions. The all-weather surface, he is informed, will not freeze even if temperatures plunge to 30° below zero. Van Berg is impressed. The Brits are even more impressed. Van Berg's energy level is awesome. Between 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Jack tours two famous stud farms and admires some of England's finest racehorses, meets with a local vet to discuss the effect of the track surface on horse's legs, stops at a Wimpy Bar to order hot dogs for the entire entourage and has cocktails with Luca Cumani, one of England's leading trainers. Anywhere he spies a phone, Van Berg gets on the line to call assistants back home.


Van Berg is awake at 5:30 a.m. and in the saddle by seven, first taking a brisk gallop over the Equitrack surface and then leading a "lot" of horses onto the heath for the morning workouts. By 8:45 a.m. he's packed and a car takes him to Heathrow Airport, where he boards a 12:20 p.m. flight to California. He sleeps most of the way.

The plane arrives in Los Angeles 25 minutes early, and Van Berg is steamed because there's no one to meet him. He calls his assistant, Tim O'Daniel, who's in the Jeep on his way to the airport. "Why didn't you check the airlines and find out I'd be early?" Van Berg fumes. O'Daniel apologizes and says he can be there in 10 minutes. "Don't bother," says Van Berg. "I'll take a cab." Back at the hotel suite, he spends three hours with the TV crew, then heads for the Palm restaurant and dinner with an owner who has flown in from Michigan. All the waiters greet him by name. After the meal the manager comes over and says, "Let me buy you an after-dinner drink, Jack. I didn't go to the track today, so I only lost $150 on your horse—instead of the $600 I would have lost. So I'm $450 ahead." Van Berg laughs, but declines the drink. He has a plane to catch.

Back at the hotel he books a seat on the 11:05 p.m. flight to Cincinnati. He travels with one hanging bag for his clothes and two briefcases stuffed with condition books and paperwork. At LAX a skycap calls out, "Hey, Jack. How you doin'?" Van Berg is limping as he walks through the terminal. He has a bum knee, and all the travel has taken its toll. At the gate he makes a quick call to Helen, then reads a Louis L'Amour. "I was in the middle of a gunfight when my [London] plane landed in L.A.," he says.

The plane isn't full, so Van Berg beds down across three empty seats and promptly falls asleep.


The plane lands in Cincinnati at 6 a.m., and Jack's feeling frisky. A Delta passenger agent is standing in the terminal, reeling off gate numbers for connecting flights to a line of people. Van Berg pulls his cap over his eyes, gets in line and when his turn comes, mutters to the agent, "Baggage compartment, please." The Delta man, Dave Cobb, is momentarily startled, then he laughs. "Hey, Jack," he cries, "your horse won again. That's great."

"I fly Delta so much," Van Berg explains later, "that I've become friends with the ground crew. They all love horse racing, so I get them passes to the track, and they help me get on flights."

As he limps into the main terminal, Anne Yocam is waiting with a cup of hot coffee. Her husband, Art, manages Van Berg's broodmares in Goshen. Anne got up at 2:30 a.m. so she would be in time to meet his flight. "I guess I'm a good coach," says Van Berg. "I've always been able to get good people to work for me."

Van Berg gets behind the wheel for the two-hour drive to the farm, but stops in La Grange for homemade Belgian waffles. It's 4:30 a.m. California time, but Jack always keeps his watch on Kentucky time. "When you're in California, time gets away from you when you're training, and I don't want to miss entering horses here or in New York."

At 8 a.m. he's at the farm, sitting in his stable office, which overlooks a dirt training track and a 2¼-mile grass track. Van Berg designed the training center and helped build it. This is the nerve center of the Van Berg operation. Rrrriiing. Rrrriiing. Rrrriiing. The phones here ring more than anywhere else. There are 11 different lines into the training center. A walkie-talkie crackles away on Van Berg's desk as his secretary announces the incoming calls.

Between calls he phones his assistants. The first call is to Mark Wallerstedt, in Hot Springs. "Hello, Mark," he says. "Who you got in? Is that right? The horse didn't run good yesterday? Yeah, yeah." Another line rings. "Hold on a minute, Mark. Hello. Yeah, yeah. Right. Oh my god. O.K., Linda, I got to get off the telephone to get him back. What time will he be back from his meeting? O.K., I'll call him at 10:30 his time. Bye-bye. Hello, Mark? Yeah, well, you're just gonna have to see, you know? Yeah, yeah. How did the colt look? You gonna call me back with entries, or you got them there now?" The phone rings. "Hold on a minute. Hello. Yeah. O.K. I don't know. I'll have to see after I get done with that luncheon with the governor, because then I'm going to New York. O.K. Bye." Another phone rings. "Hello, Harry. No, I've been in Europe. I made some strong connections over there. I trained 60 head yesterday morning. I like the track. Yeah, I'll have a lot of good horses for sale. I don't know. Well, we gotta see. There's plenty of races for him. Yeah, yeah. O.K., buddy." The phone rings. "Hello. Yeah, Marilyn. Pretty good. Yeah, I went out with a whole set of horses there yesterday."

On and on it goes, until just before noon, when Van Berg dashes into the house to change clothes for a fund-raising luncheon in Louisville hosted by Kentucky governor Wallace Wilkinson. On his way through the hall of the farmhouse, he punches in a Waylon Jennings tune on a huge jukebox and asks Anne to call his friend Smiley at Delta. "See if he can get me on the last flight to Albany tonight. And ask him if he can get me a cheap fare," he says. Twenty minutes later he's showered and changed and on his way to Louisville.

When he returns to Goshen two hours later, he and Art sit down at the dining room table and discuss upcoming horse matings. Then he goes over to the trailer office, reviews the payroll and processes 743 W-2 tax forms with his staff. "That's how many people worked for me last year," Van Berg says.

Last summer John O'Hara, his assistant trainer at Santa Anita, gladly left the New Jersey outfit he was with to move to California and work for Van Berg. "If you work hard," says O'Hara, "you can go anywhere with Jack. I want to know every little thing he does and why he does it. He can be totally disgusted with something you do, but never holds a grudge on you personally. Two minutes after yelling at you, he'll put his arm around your shoulders and start joking. Jack keeps people around him who want to succeed. He doesn't pay top dollar, and the reason is, Jack wants people who want to work hard and go somewhere. He'll give you enough rope to pull yourself up a little bit higher—or to hang yourself."

At 7:30 p.m. Van Berg is on the road again, driving through a blizzard to get to Louisville's Standiford Field. He's on an 8:15 flight to Albany, with a change in Pittsburgh. As it turns out, it's the last flight to get off the ground before the airport is closed. At Pittsburgh he makes a few phone calls, gets on another plane, and falls asleep. He snores so loudly that the woman sitting next to him starts giggling uncontrollably. Blissfully unaware, Van Berg saws wood until 11 p.m., when the plane lands in Albany. After a quick meal at a nearby restaurant, he finds an inexpensive motel and goes to sleep.


At 7 a.m. Van Berg is trying to clean a foot of snow off the car's windshield with his bare hands. The storm has raged all night, and it's still snowing. Van Berg pulls into a supermarket and stocks up on food: apples, crackers, cheese and soft drinks. "If this car gets stuck out there, I'm not going to die of starvation," he says. After all, would Duke Wayne go out in a blizzard unprepared? Van Berg drives slowly along treacherous roads to Morris Levy's Sunnyview Farm, where he evaluates 57 colts and fillies for the owner. A groom leads the horses up and down the shed-row, and Van Berg keeps up a running commentary, rating each one from 4 to 9. "Keep this one," he says of a nice chestnut, giving her a 9. "She's a real beauty. That one needs to be turned out. Send that one to Suffolk."

After a break for lunch and a slew of phone calls, Van Berg is back on the road at 2:30 p.m., heading for the Albany airport. Two days of bad weather have resulted in canceled and delayed flights, and the airport is filled with angry and frustrated travelers. But Van Berg remains calm, despite the fact that he can't get to New Orleans as he had planned. He simply switches to Plan B: Go to New York City. He calls assistant trainer Joe Petalino at Belmont Park and tells him he's coming in and to have that filly ready for him to work on. When Van Berg arrives at JFK at 6:30 p.m., Joe is waiting to whisk him over to Belmont. At his barn Jack buckles on a leather blacksmith's apron and goes to work cutting an abscess out of the filly's frog. It's backbreaking work, and he has to stand up and stretch a few times before he's finished. Why is he doing this himself? "Because the blacksmith's afraid to cut deep enough," Van Berg says. He's racing the clock. His flight to California leaves from La Guardia Airport at 8:20.

Kelly O'Hara, an exercise rider, speeds through the snow and howling winds to get Van Berg to La Guardia. "You can drive for me anytime," he tells her as she careers down the Grand Central Parkway. Van Berg is on time; the flight has been canceled. Back on the phone he gets, calling Anne in Kentucky and his contacts at Delta. "See if you can get me on a plane to California tonight," he says. "I've got a horse in the eighth at Santa Anita tomorrow." Finally he gets a seat on a plane leaving La Guardia at 9:20 p.m.—but the flight has been delayed until 11:55 p.m.

"Let's eat," says Van Berg. His knee is killing him, and he's limping as he walks into Stella's, a popular Italian restaurant near Belmont Park. Naturally, they know him here. The place is crowded, and people are waiting to be seated, but a table is quickly found for Van Berg. After a hearty dinner, he returns to La Guardia. Another delay. The plane will not leave until 1:10 a.m. The boarding area is crammed with noisy, disgruntled passengers. Van Berg sits down and reads Louis L'Amour.

When he finishes the book he strikes up a conversation with two young men sitting near him. "I've got to get to L.A.," he says. "I've got a horse running tomorrow."

"Oh, yeah?" says one guy. "My father owns harness horses. What's your name?"

"Van Berg," he says. The name doesn't register.

"So where did you say you have horses?" the fellow asks. "In California?"

"Yeah, and Kentucky, Arkansas, New York and New Orleans."

"But you've never won the big one, right?"

"Well, yes I did," says Van Berg. "Last year."

Lord knows it took awhile, but it's worth waiting for an Alysheba. Some trainers work a lifetime and never have a horse like that. Van Berg never tires of talking about Alysheba's Kentucky Derby. "Hell, he was four miles the best horse," he says. "Fifty jumps out of the gate he got turned sideways, then [jockey Chris] McCarron had to snatch him clear, then he circled the field and run clear around the goddam outside of everybody, clipped to his knees at the eighth pole, gets back up and has to move twice more out and he still wins. No horse in history ever overcome that."

Although he has 14 horses nominated to the Triple Crown races this year, his only decent shot is with a Northern Dancer colt named Din's Dancer, who goes in the Arkansas Derby on April 23. Din's Dancer hasn't won many races, but neither had Alysheba at this time last year.

Van Berg's flight to Los Angeles finally takes off at 2 a.m. He goes immediately to sleep. He'll need it. It's gonna be a busy week.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWith some 250 horses across the country to keep track of, Van Berg is always on call. PHOTOPAT McDONOUGHA couple of empty seats on an airplane turn into a small but comfy bed for Van Berg. PHOTOTREVOR JONESTraveling light, Van Berg awaits the customs inspector at London's Gatwick Airport. PHOTOTREVOR JONESThe peripatetic trainer inspects a new track surface on his whirlwind tour in England. PHOTOTREVOR JONESWith calls from a booth in London, his Jeep in L.A. and his office in Kentucky, Van Berg rings up some $54,000 a year in phone bills. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL LUSTER[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe day starts early for Van Berg & Co., with a 6 a.m. training session at Hollywood Park. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWhen the need arises, Van Berg becomes a blacksmith and takes the footwork in hand. PHOTOJERRY COOKEVan Berg greeted McCarron and Alysheba after winning the Kentucky Derby in 1987.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)