Trainer Jack Van Berg, fresh off his early morning flight from Newark to Los Angeles, bombs along the Harbor Freeway, heading toward Santa Anita racetrack in his cream-colored Jeep Wagoneer with the vanity license plate ALYSHBA. Van Berg, 51, steers with his left hand, punches in numbers on his cellular phone with his right hand and between calls talks about his triumphant weekend in New York City. The day before, he was given the Big Sport of Turfdom award by the Turf Publicists of America, and his beloved racehorse, 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, won an Eclipse Award as the best 3-year-old colt in the nation.
"You should have heard the applause when Alysheba's name was announced," he says. "None of them other horses that won got cheered like that." The phone rings. The phone is always ringing. He picks it up. "Yeah." Pause. "Ken, how you doing?" Pause. "I told you I'd have something for you, so you don't have to look nowhere else." The guy at the other end is somebody Jack has promised a job to. Van Berg expertly wheels the Jeep in and out of freeway traffic, tucking the receiver between his neck and shoulder while reaching across the steering wheel to flip the directional with his right hand. "I told you exactly, I didn't stutter." Long pause. The caller can't be a close friend of Van Berg's, or he would know that Jack has a photographic memory. "I got something for you. It'll either be in New York or California." Pause. "O.K., pardner. Don't worry about it. I'll call you."
And he will. Van Berg is always just a phone call away. AT&T loves him: He spends about $4,500 a month on phone calls and has so many phone numbers that if they were all listed in one place, they would take up half a page in the phone book. He even has his own 800 number. The only time you can't reach him by phone is when he's on a plane. The airlines love him, too. He spends $60,000 to $70,000 a year on plane tickets—and he always travels coach.
True, there are phones on airplanes these days, but that's the one place Van Berg doesn't use them. After all, a man has to sleep sometime. What Brahms's "Lullaby" is to an infant, a humming jet engine is to Van Berg, who has the enviable ability to fall asleep moments after taking his seat on an airplane and wake up refreshed at the end of a flight.
Van Berg needs to stay sharp. While most top trainers worry about maybe 40 or 50 horses, he keeps tabs on some 250. He has horses stabled at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in California, Belmont Park in New York, Laurel Race Course in Maryland, Turfway Park in Kentucky, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., plus a whole bunch of babies at his farms in Goshen, Ky., and Hesperia, Calif. There are trusted assistant trainers at each of the tracks, and their job is to train the horses the way Van Berg tells them to.
He hooks a right off 210 East onto Baldwin Avenue, steers through the entrance to Santa Anita and pulls up outside his barn. Rrrriiiing. The phone in the tack room is ringing as Van Berg walks in. It's one of his owners, looking to buy another horse. Jack has one in mind, a beautiful filly, he says. He promises the prospective buyer he'll do what he can, then heads over to the racetrack. Every few yards, people greet him. Tomorrow, Feb. 7, brings the Strub Stakes, Alysheba's first start as a 4-year-old. Someone calls out, "Hey, Jack, is Alysheba gonna win tomorrow?"
"Hell, yes," he replies.
At precisely 4:50 a.m. Van Berg leaves the suite he leases at the Airport Park Hotel and heads to Hollywood Park, just down the street. He arrives at 5:01 a.m. and immediately makes his rounds of the barn, stopping in each stall to feel the legs and ankles of the 40 horses he has stabled there, while his assistant trainer, Donald Ropp, gives him a running commentary on the status and condition of each animal. Van Berg is being followed by an entourage of TV people who are making a video about the training of horses. Penny Fires, who heads up the project, says she chose Van Berg because he is a horseman's horseman, a trainer's trainer. "We wanted somebody who is really respected in the industry," she says. "Jack was the first person who came to mind. Everybody knows he's the best."