Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg on a Tear at Ellis Park

Jack Van Berg (Photo by Coady Photography)

This is how good things are going right now for Jack Van Berg’s stable: After the nice 2-year-old Make Noise won a maiden race Friday at Ellis Park to give the barn its third win in eight races, a victory in Saturday’s sixth race dropped into their lap.

That came when Cara Blythe finished second behind Sister Kan. But because Sister Kan was determined to have impeded third-place Inspeightofyou,the first-place finisher was disqualified to third behind the filly she bothered. That “kissed” Cara Blythe into Van Berg’s fourth win in nine starts.

“The stars are lining up right now,” said Tom Van Berg, who is helping out his dad, now tied for fourth in the Ellis trainer standings. The barn also has four thirds in 14 starts overall this meet.

Van Berg’s hot streak started with another 2-year-old maiden race, as Jerry Caroom’s Northern Trail won a 5 1/2-furlong grass event by 3 1/2 lengths in fast time. Make Noise, owned by long-time Van Berg client Kay Stillman, won by 2 1/2 lengths in front-running fashion to take a seven-furlong race on dirt. The $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile could be next.

Van Berg, now the winner of 6,509 races in a 60-year career, was inducted into North American racing’s Hall of Fame in 1985, two years before he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Alysheba. If it’s been decades ago since Van Berg would win 200 races a year in a slow year, at age 81 he’s still always on the look out for a nice horse.

“This one is a little different,” Tom Van Berg said. “We have a couple of owners who are trying to get rid of some of the claimers and improve their stock, so they’re dropping (in class) and running, hopefully putting them in spots where they can win. But it seems like it’s the 2-year-olds we’ve won with and not the drops.”

For Court, it’s good to see Van Berg back in the winner’s circle with a nice horse — especially if the jockey is the one riding. The jockey also was on Cara Blythe.

“It’s just good to be back in the saddle for Jack Van Berg again,” said Court, who was winning stakes around the country for Van Berg in the 1980s and then rode for the trainer when both were based in California. “Not only that, but to win one for him is phenomenal. And to have Tom back in the game here locally, it brings back a lot of memories. It’s a pleasant feeling.

“He was always one of those guys — old school and kind of hard on the surface. But he’d make his point. He’s an excellent horseman and knows talent when he sees it. He sees what most people don’t recognize.”

This how tough Van Berg is: He has been ailing but still comes out most days to his Churchill Downs barn – and then returns for two or three days a week to his home in Hot Springs, Ark. Tom is the one trekking to and from Ellis on Interstate 64 from Louisville.

“He’s struggling,” Tom said. “Five weeks ago he actually was talking to me one Sunday morning and said, ‘Tom, I think it’s my time. I just don’t have energy anymore. I don’t feel good. I sleep all the time. I can’t get my breath.’ So he went back down to Arkansas. I think it was that Tuesday or Wednesday, he was at his home and collapsed, knocked his head. When he woke up, he called a friend down there and one of his clients, Jerry Caroom, flew him to Oklahoma City to his heart doctor, and they found out he had pneumonia in both lungs. It wasn’t his heart.

“He’s had problems with his heart that last five, six years. To get over that is a big hump anyway. I kind of came out of retirement to drive him down the road. He can sit in his truck and watch them train and yell at me,” he said, adding jokingly, “And then I go back and yell at the assistants, or the grooms or whoever — the jockeys.”

While Jack Van Berg bought a fixer-upper near Churchill Downs, he still travels back and forth with a driver to his Hot Springs residence for two or three days a week.

“It takes a lot out of him to get back up here,” Tom said. “The more he can get that house ready and stay here (in Louisville) and take it easy, the better he’ll be.”

Tom trained for nine years after assisting his father for years, quitting after his last starter on New Year’s Day in 2008 in order to be home with his young son Tanner, who had been diagnosed with leukemia.

“He’s been in remission since the end of ’08, really, but they treated him for three years,” said Tom, who started a job working for the Ragozin handicapping sheets out of his home. “Now he’s basically tested once a year for his blood, to make sure no cancer cells are coming back.

“I pretty much have my own schedule. My wife has a good job downtown with the convention and visitors bureau, so I can run up and down the road if I need to and still do my work.”

Tanner is now 12 “and doing great,” his dad said.

Tom and Angi Van Berg also have a 10-year-old son, Tyler, carrying the family tradition of starting the kids’ names with T.

“My wife came up with Tanner’s name. Grampa Van — Marion Van,” he said with his nickname for Jack’s father, Hall of Fame trainer and owner and family patriarch Marion Van Berg, “When we were up at the Hall of Fame in Saratoga, Angi read the bio of my grampa, Marion, and his first trainer was a guy named Charlie Tanner. My mom named all his kids — Jack’s sons and daughters — with Ts: Tim, Tami, Tori, Traci, Tom. I never thought about it. But when we got married Angi said, ‘Why did you name all your kids with T’s?’ My mom said, ‘It’s easy. It stands for The very best.’ So Angi said, ‘We’ve got to name them Ts now, too. So when she saw Charlie Tanner, she was like, ‘That’s his name. It’s automatic.’”

Tom Van Berg came to what now is his hometown in 1996 with a 30-horse string for prominent owner John Franks. Several years later, one of Jack’s owners from Detroit bought and developed the HighPointe training center near La Grange, Ky.

“We developed that with the idea that Dad would come back,” Tom said. “So we built that and Dad still never came back. He’d never leave California, because he had that ranch out there. Three years ago now he came back. It’s good to have him back.”

Asked how being his dad’s assistant now is different from when Tom worked for his dad as a young man, he said, “Very different. Just strictly because he’s not as hands-on as much. It’s more he’s seeing through my eyes. And Sammy Almaraz has been with him forever, for like 38 years as his assistant. And his dad was with him before that.”

Sammy Almaraz, by the way, was the groom for Gate Dancer, who became Van Berg’s first Triple Crown race winner in the 1984 Preakness.

And who knows? Maybe Make Noise will get Jack back on the Triple Crown trail.

“Dad’s always thought he could run,” Tom said. “He bought him for ($22,000) – the ham sandwich Bob Baffert used to talk about. Dad still buys the ham sandwiches, while Baffert is on to the caviar. Dad still goes to the sales the last couple of days, finds individuals that look the part.”

(From Ellis Park news release, by Jennie Rees)