Wednesday, October 30, 2013

From Grit to Glory

I was talking with a friend of mine a few years ago about race calls, specifically Tom Durkin. He asked, “Have you heard the 1987 Breeders’ Cup call?”

No, I hadn’t.

“Oh, you have to listen to that one! ‘The two Derby winners, HIT the wire together!’ It’s good stuff.’

One of those Derby winners was Ferdinand and the other was Alysheba, trained by Jack Van Berg.

I never knew who Jack Van Berg was until a few months ago. Sad, I know, but I received a galley of Van Berg’s Jack: From Grit to Glory, by Chris Kotulak, and had a chance to interview Kotulak for Saratoga Wire.

About a month after that, Van Berg was on a Breeders’ Cup Experience teleconference as he will be promoting the whole experience—as well as the book—at this weekend’s World Championships.

“I’m going to be talking to the club, signing books, answering questions and talking to people,” Van Berg said. “It’s the greatest experience people can have. It’s the super Bowl, Stanley Cup and World Series rolled into one. You have the greatest jockeys the greatest horses, the beauty of the animal, beautiful full fields of horses.”

A wonderful thing about being involved in this sport, even as a writer, is you get to talk to these people. You get access to legends. Van Berg is like Earl Weaver and Vince Lombardi. Van Berg’s tree branches canopy decades of horse racing. His work ethic and his gruff exterior were inherited from his father, Marion. Van Berg not so much on a book tour as he is acting as a Secretary of State in the foreign affairs of horse racing.

I’ve read most of the book, mainly in pieces, and it is a gripping read.

“I’ve had three complaints,” Van Berg said. “I’ve had three different people tell me they were up all night reading it. They couldn’t put it down. It’s been a great thing.”

Van Berg, a man who has, quite literally, seen it all, I asked him about his stance on more strict drug testing, a topic he eludes to toward the end of the book.

“I don’t think they have the greatest testing equipment,” he said. “Each state has a different place. When you test Olympic athletes they have the best equipment. I think they should put more money, small minute percent out of mutuel funds and have three labs—one in the West, the East, and the Midwest—have the funding for it, the best there is. Tests comes up bad, send the split to the other labs, then you take your penalty.”

And, as he sees it, the penalties are too lenient. After the appeals process, so many trainers keep on working.

“That’s the thing. It’s not been done,” he said. “They talk about it, then they do a little thing, they have a ruling, they slap someone on the hand. When you sign a stall application, if you have the strictest test, you have a bad test, you lose your stalls.”

Van Berg has resumed training out West, but he’ll be moving his operation back to the Midwest where he got his start decades ago. He’ll be at the Breeders’ Cup and he’ll be there telling stories, but also hearing the stories people have of him.

“They all want to tell Jack their Van Berg story,” Kotulak said. “Working for Jack, or their father working for Jack, or their fathers working for Jack’s father.”

I also asked Van Berg where his optimism lies.

“I think they can get it turned around,” Van Berg said. “Here’s what happened: They had the only game in town for all these years so they never did anything to it. Pro football got bigger, hockey, baseball, all got bigger. Racing stood on its own self and didn’t do anything about it. We’ve still go the greatest sport there is. When you talk about the Breeders’ Cup Experience, seeing it, you’re getting the Stanley Cup, the Jockey Club and World Series all in one for two days.”

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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