Trainer Jack Van Berg Trained 1987 Kentucky Derby Winner and 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic Winner Alysheba
The cowboy hat befitted his upbringing in rural Nebraska. He walked the barns of Southern California race tracks for more than 40 years after dominating racing as the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha from 1959-1977. After more than six decades as a horse trainer, Jack Van Berg passed away Wednesday in Little Rock, Arkansas at the age of 81. His last race was as a trainer was a month ago Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs, but he’s remembered most for being the trainer of 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba.
However, Van Berg will be remembered for more than one horse. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985, before his Triple Crown run with Alysheba. He won 6,523 races and was an institution in racing, universally respected by his peers and the sport’s fans alike. After winning just one of his first 10 races, Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. He beat Bet Twice in both of them, clipping heels with him down the stretch in the Kentucky Derby, causing Alysheba to stumble to his knees before recovering and racing home a winner of the Roses. Bet Twice denied Alysheba the Triple Crown, beating him in the Belmont Stakes and denying Van Berg a place in racing history.
“Do I still think about that race (Belmont)? Sure I think about it,” Van Berg told Bill Plaschke of the LA Times on the 10-year anniversary of the Belmont loss. “So does my banker. He has nightmares.”
Alysheba won his final race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in 1988 to finish of a Horse of the Year campaign. He concluded his career with 11 wins and 8 runner-up finishes in 26 starts with more than $6.6 million in earnings, taking Van Berg on a ride he’ll never forget.
“Probably the greatest thrill of my life,” Van Berg said of winning the Kentucky Derby in an interview earlier this year at Oaklawn Park.
Van Berg won nine national training titles from 1968 to 1986. In 1976 he set a record for trainer wins in a year in North America with 496. That record stood until 2004. He earned an Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer in 1984 and became the first trainer to win 5,000 races in July, 1987. Starting in the 1980’s, Van Berg was among the first trainers to have barns at various locations across the country.
Jack Van Berg is survived by a son, trainer, Tom Van Berg, and three daughters, Tori, Tammy and Traci. He was predeceased earlier this year by another son, trainer Tim Van Berg.