The legendary Jack Van Berg was at Canterbury Park signing copies of the Chris Kotulak penned biography “Jack: From Grit to Glory” and presenting the trophy to the winning connections of the Lady Canterbury Stakes. Van Berg was the leading trainer at the very first race meet in Shakopee in 1985 when the track was Canterbury Downs.
Van Berg was gracious with everyone, smart, funny and sharp. We were fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with him and asked for his take on horses, training and Alysheba.
MWPR: You grew up in this business. In the last 60 odd years the durability of today’s thoroughbred has come into question; that they’re incapable of racing like they used to. Do you have any thoughts on that?
JVB: I don’t have any thoughts, I have facts. I’ll tell you exactly what’s wrong today. The reason they aren’t holding up very well today is because you have the Johnny-come-lately trainers. Most of the veterinarians are training the horses these days. You ride through the barn area and you see the bets out there jogging the horses and the trainer will be over there drinking coffee and thinking about how smart he is.
Back in the old days, they were good horsemen. My dad took a lot of horses with problems and turned them around. He gave them time and gave them a chance. They put so much money on the two year olds and three year olds now they don’t give them time to develop. It’s a disgrace to me to see a $500,000 horse and in three starts he’s in for maiden claiming $32,000. There’s living soul on earth that can tell you what that horse is worth.
It’s like human beings. You take a kid coming off the farm and he’s tripping over his shoelaces but by the time he becomes a senior and goes to college, he’s a hellish football player. Then you get the next one and he’s great in high school but doesn’t go on. They all develop at different times.
There is so much emphasis placed on 2-year olds. I can show you guys that had 100 2-year olds that are the best bred in the world and they might come up with one good horse. They think they’re good horsemen. That’s bullshit. If you don’t get the best out of every individual you come in contact with you’re a damn poor horseman.
Now, they can chip their knee, they can bow [a tendon] – those things happen. I’m just telling you that you got to give them time. Like my dad always said, “Let them tell you what they want to do.” If you don’t wait on them, they’ll make you wait.
MWPR: What are your thoughts on working horses in between races and getting them to the track?
JVB: Christophe Clement, Michael Matz, old jumping horse riders, they train their horses. You don’t see them working all the time, they gallop them. I learned a very good lesson from Laz Berrara when he had Bold Forbes heading to the Derby. He never worked that horse. He’d gallop him a mile and then let him go a mile in 1:56, 1:57.
I took Bold Eagle – he was sent to me as a sprinter – and won the Arkansas Derby with him, we won the Rebel and beaten like that for the Preakness. I never did work him. The people that came with him…the first race we went a distance of ground they told me I was nuts.
You don’t need to see them go in :57 and :59. They don’t need all that. That’s a bunch of bull.
MWPR: Folks know of your “big” horses, Alysheba and Gate Dancer to name two, do you have others that maybe were kind of favorites of yours that folks may not know much about?
JVB: I had that horse, Dave’s Friend, I got him when he was 8-years old and I won the Count Fleet with him when he was eight and nine years old and ran him in the Count Fleet when he was ten. He was probably as good a sprinter as there was in the country.
MWPR: Some very good horses never make it to the track. They may have the talent but get hurt or have physical issues.
JVB: Horses legs are so small. They’re smaller than yours and they land on one leg at a time. That takes a lot of force when they’re running and things can happen. I’ve had horses that looked like they were going to be really top horses and things happen to them. They get hurt: they bow, they chip and stuff like that. Sometimes they can come back if they have enough time. Sometimes you can’t.
I don’t think that we’re getting the best out of the horses. I think that they’re just as sound today as they were fifty years ago, but 50-years ago we gave them more time to develop.
They did a study that showed that horses that exercised when they are young build more bone. Just steady light exercise and let them develop. You need to take these horse that cost all this money and give them time to develop.
There is nothing more satisfying than developing a horse. I love it. Last night I ran a horse in a maiden allowance at Lone Star. He finished 3rd, he had some trouble and got stopped. In the third start of his life I claimed him for $7500 by Looking at Lucky. He’s going to be a nice horse. He gained 100 pounds since I claimed him. I gave him time to develop. You got to get them strong. Now you can’t get them too heavy. I had one guy who worked for me, the faster the horse would run, the more he’d want to feed him! Every time we had a good horse we had to slow this guy down a bit.
MWPR: And Alysheba.
JVB: The beauty thing about Alysheba is that he never had so much as a pimple on him. Never had any fluid in any joint. When I took him from a 2-year old to a 3-year old he stayed at the same weight. When he went from a 3-year old to a 4-year old he stayed at the same weight. He was like a good athlete: he never overate himself, he never packed on weight.
And he could do things that you couldn’t believe. When I ran him in the Belmont, I told the Scarboroughs all week that this horse would be in front every step of the mile and a half. Chris McCarron comes to the paddock and I told him, “Chris, this horse is going to be in front today.”
He looked at me like I fell off a banana wagon.
I said, “Chris, I know this horse like the back of my hand. He can gallop faster than these horses can run.”
Well, he rode him and you could have put a bug boy on his first mount and he would have rode better than he did on that day by holding onto his mane and letting him do his own thing.
A year later when he set the track record in the Woodward, McCarron comes back standing in the saddle and says, “Jack, you’re right. He can gallop faster than these horses can run.”
I said, “You’re a year late and five minutes short.”