The most famous horse trainer from a bygone Omaha era isn't about to let bygones be bygones.
Jack Van Berg, a national horse racing Hall of Fame member who will be in town this weekend to sign copies of his new biography, is still furious that the Ak-Sar-Ben track was closed and dismantled.
“It's terrible,” Jack said Wednesday. “I never run into anybody in Omaha who isn't sick that they tore Ak-Sar-Ben down. It could have been saved if it got slot machines.”
Once one of the nation's top tracks, Ak saw a drastic drop in attendance and betting from competition of Iowa dog racing, casinos, lotteries and other forms of gambling, and it closed in 1995.
Today the area is redeveloped as a retail, residential, academic and entertainment center, though racing fans lament the track's demise.
Van Berg, born and raised in Columbus, Neb., led Ak trainers in victories for two decades. He once led the nation in career victories and narrowly missed the ultimate — the Triple Crown.
Until I caught up with him by phone this week from California, I hadn't spoken with Jack in a few years. I well remember, though, fascinating interviews at Ak-Sar-Ben and at the Aqueduct Racetrack in New York.
The latter is where he prepared his greatest Thoroughbred — Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba — to run in the 1987 Belmont Stakes, the final jewel in the crown.
The tree-shaded barn area features streets named for Triple Crown winners, such as Secretariat Avenue and Omaha Road. (Omaha won the crown in 1935.) Alysheba, Jack said, was ready.
“He has that air about him that I can't describe,” the legendary trainer told me back then. “I got kicked out of college, so I don't know any of them big words. Anyway, he has the look, he has the beautiful stride, he has the beautiful disposition. He has everything going for him to get the job done.”
Alysheba didn't quite get the job done, finishing fourth. But that year was a high point for Jack.
Now the life and career of Jack Van Berg, a descendant of Swedish immigrants to Nebraska, is told in 300-plus pages with lots of photos.
Starting at noon Saturday, he and his biographer, Omaha native Chris Kotulak, will meet fans at the Horsemen's Park track, 63rd and Q Streets, and sign autographs of “Jack, From Grit to Glory.” (The cost is $20 at the track or at jackfromgrittoglory.com.)
The book covers Van Berg's “hardship, heartache and heartfelt joy.”
It includes his championships, his “virtually nonexistent family life,” his testimony before Congress and his financial woes related to a ranch in California.
Two days before the '87 Belmont Stakes, Jack announced a fateful decision: moving his racing headquarters from Kentucky to California, which led to a financial nightmare. He blames it on partners and their lawyers and said he remains in debt from the ranch venture.
“That ruined my life,” he said this week. “I was on top of the world.”
Kotulak said he wanted to recount Van Berg's life and career as completely as possible, and Jack cooperated.
“I didn't want it to just be a vanity book telling flowery stories about Jack,” Kotulak said. “He was very open. Originally, I would sit in a pickup with him under a palm tree at Hollywood Park (racetrack) in California and turn on the tape recorder.”
Jack would get emotional talking about his father, trainer Marion H. Van Berg, whom the son revered.
“He has carried the banner of his father his whole life,” the author said. “Jack considered him the greatest teacher and horseman ever. And Jack became a tremendous mentor to many top-flight horsemen.”
In the book, Jack apologizes for not being home more often, saying that although he provided well for his family, he was away too much to train horses around the country. Though his children turned out well, he says, he has regrets.
“I'd give back thousands of those wins,” he says in the book, “to win back the time I missed and messed up with my family.”
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He kept a frenetic pace. At times he would regularly work at Ak-Sar-Ben from early in the morning, take a United flight at noon to check on horses at a track in Chicago and return to Omaha at night.
Jack, who turns 77 on June 7, asked Kotulak three years ago to write the biography and said he has done an outstanding job.
“A lot of people had approached me to write it,” Van Berg said, “but I never felt comfortable with any of them. Chris is from Omaha and kind of grew up on the back stretch of Ak-Sar-Ben.”
Now 50, Kotulak was still a teenager when he would ride his bicycle to Ak-Sar-Ben at 4:30 a.m. for a job walking horses and cleaning stalls. He became the track announcer at Fonner Park in Grand Island in 1986, and he later called races at Ak-Sar-Ben and at tracks in Louisiana and California.
He has covered horse racing in England, Australia and Japan as a TV host, analyst and reporter, and today works full-time at the Remington Park racetrack and casino in Oklahoma City.
His book includes Van Berg's 2008 testimony to a congressional committee about what Jack called “chemical warfare on the racetrack.”
The trainer called for a ban on equine medications such as steroids. They result in an unnatural increase in young horses' muscle mass, he testified, “and make them heavier than their still-maturing bone structure can often tolerate.”
The book includes 37 pages on Alysheba, including the disappointing loss at the Belmont Stakes.
Van Berg had told jockey Chris McCarron that Sheba could “gallop faster than the other horses can run,” and to let him go to the front. But the jockey reined him in early, wanting to save him for a stretch run in the mile-and-a-half trip, the longest of the Triple Crown races.
Alysheba, though, got boxed in at the head of the stretch, unable to make a move until it was too late — missing out on a $5 million bonus for the winner of the Triple Crown.
In spite of what Van Berg called “a pitiful ride,” he retained the jockey as Alysheba's regular rider.
In the winner's circle after a 1988 race, McCarron said: “Jack, you're right. He can gallop faster than they can run.”
Snapped Jack: “You're a year late and five million short.”
Van Berg, who said he looks forward to seeing Omaha fans and friends, still trains horses in California.
“I'll retire when they put me in that box,” he said. “I've watched too many people retire and just melt away.”
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Editor's note: A photo that misidentified Van Berg has been removed from this article.