Insiders have long known how good Van Berg is: He saddled his first winner in 1952 and last year counted his 5,000th, more than any other trainer in the history of the sport. But in the horse racing business, you don't get real respect until you win a Triple Crown race. It wasn't until 1984, when his colt Gate Dancer won the Preakness, that a lot of people finally took notice. "I've had a tag all my life as a claiming-horse trainer," says Van Berg, "and everybody thinks if you train claimers, you can't train a good horse. Good horses are actually easier to train."
At 5:40 a.m. Van Berg hops back in the Jeep and heads over to Santa Anita to work Alysheba. It's still pitch black outside as he pulls into a gas station and announces, "I'm gonna stop here and fill up both my tanks." While the Jeep is being gassed up, he dashes across the deserted street and buys coffee and donuts. He eats constantly and loves food; it is the necessary fuel for a workaholic who seems never to stop moving. Back on the road again, he is asked if he's worried about Alysheba in the Strub Stakes that afternoon. "Well, I can't sit here and tell you I don't worry," says Van Berg. "But I have more confidence in this horse than any horse I've ever put on a racetrack. He don't never lie to you. He does everything with so much grace. He's a genuine athlete."
At Santa Anita, Van Berg fields a few phone calls and then walks over to the main track with Alysheba. The colt is on his toes, dancing and full of himself. Jack watches his star gallop and then, satisfied, gets in the Jeep and drives back to Hollywood Park. On the tack room walls here are pictures of his two heroes: One is John Wayne and the other is his father, the late Hall of Fame trainer Marion Van Berg.
The father taught the son well, and Jack never fails to give his dad credit for everything he has accomplished. "My father was a genius," he says, "and the greatest horseman who ever lived." Mr. Van, as Marion was called, was a stern taskmaster and disciplinarian, and young Jack, who grew up in Columbus, Neb., often chafed under his demands. "When I was a kid I was scared of my father. He could ride you to the breaking point and then make you feel like a damn fool for being mad at him. The older I got, the smarter I found out he was. And now, I thank the Lord every day that I got to come up under someone like that."
Rrrriiiing. Van Berg answers the phone in the tack room. "Hello. Yeah, yeah." He listens for a while to the caller, a horse owner. Van Berg is mildly irritated. "Hell, you've told me so many different things, I feel like your wife," he says. "I don't know what to believe." He laughs, hangs up, and heads outside where he mounts his pony, Red, and leads a set of horses to the track.
At 10:30 a.m. he's back in his hotel suite getting dressed for the races and talking on the phone at the same time. In one corner, lined up neatly in two rows, are a dozen pairs of well-worn cowboy boots. His collection of 30 or so caps, each with a different patch on the front, sits on a portable clothes rack. His wife, Helen, who usually stays at their Hot Springs, Ark., home, is in Los Angeles on a rare visit, having flown to California with him from New York. She has a bad case of jet lag. Says Jack, "I have an abundance of energy, and it just about kills anybody trying to keep up with me. Helen can't sleep on airplanes; that's why she can't travel with me."
"It's hard not seeing Jack much," says Helen, "but I'm a loner. I can entertain myself."
On a table, prominently displayed, is another portrait of John Wayne. Van Berg has the same slow-talking drawl, and he may be one of the last men on earth who removes his hat when a lady gets on the elevator. He has a courtly, old-fashioned manner toward women that would irritate the average feminist, but hey, he isn't doing anything the Duke wouldn't do.
It's a beautiful afternoon at Santa Anita, and when the crowd applauds Alysheba in the paddock, he starts bucking and kicking his heels in the air. "He's a showman," says Van Berg. "He always does that when people clap for him." Alysheba is giving away three to nine pounds to the other five horses in the 1�-mile Strub, but he still wins it by three lengths. Understandably, Van Berg is ecstatic. "This is as good a horse as ever lived," he gushes. "Alysheba is my best friend." Helen gives him a look. "I'm sorry, honey," Jack says to her. "You're my wife, and I love you. But he's my best friend."