Most folks in Marion H. Van Berg's home town of Columbus, Neb. (pop. 13,500) are vaguely aware that he wins more horse races than anybody. They think that's nice, but it isn't what they mean when they say he "put the town on the map." The merchants measured Van Berg's stature in a full-page ad in The Columbus Daily Telegram last January 17, the eve of a testimonial dinner to him. It was a prosaic Ode to a Sales Pavilion. The pavilion belongs to Mr. Van, and so does the complex of animal pens that spreads to the leeward, fortunately, of his handsome home. Last year farmers from as far away as Montana brought 115,274 cattle and 73,938 hogs through Van Berg's sales arena. The auctioneer's fee was good for Mr. Van. The buyers' and sellers' money was good for everybody.
Late in 1962 Mr. Van put on a different kind of auction. With the racing season over, he sold off about 50 horses, most of them Thoroughbreds only by the broadest definition. Teddy Cox, columnist of The Morning Telegraph and Mr. Van's occasional Boswell, knew a dispersal sale when he saw one. Van Berg, he wrote, was "about to curtail his vast operations."
It figured. Mr. Van was almost 67, and his wife, two sons and seven daughters had been bugging him for a couple of years to pay attention to the doctor's warnings about his heart. He didn't need the money. His eldest daughter, Helen Karlin, was running the sales pavilion efficiently; his son Jack had become an accomplished horse trainer, and brother Bud was running a new pavilion in Sterling, Colo. Everybody was all right. Besides, Mr. Van had nothing left to prove. In 1960, starting almost twice as many horses (1,122) as the Light Brigade, he had won 221 races, a record The Morning Telegraph did not expect to see broken. His 205 winners in '62 had made him the winningest owner for the third straight year and the fifth time in eight years. The prize for the leading money-winning stable had eluded him, but that was hardly a feasible goal. Running his agglomeration of platers for petty-cash pots at third-rate tracks like Oaklawn Park and the Fair Grounds, he could hardly match the aristocratic cavalry of Calumet Farm, the leading looter for 12 of 21 years—just to name one.
Well, Calumet is over the hill, and you can't find King Ranch anymore—just to name two—but the purple-and-gold colors of M.H. Van Berg fly on. Last year, sending 1,453 animals to the post, Mr. Van rebroke that unbreakable record of his by winning 270 races. His $895,246 in winnings also led the nation. It was the first time one stable had taken both titles since 1948, when Citation alone brought back $709,470 for Calumet. Van Berg's biggest winner was Ramblin Road, who won $85,685.
A chart of Mr. Van's victory (by $5,325) in the money department would say he won "easily," but he had to stand off a late shopping spree by the runner-up, Financier Louis E. Wolfson. "You can't take anything away from Van Berg," said Wolfson's trainer, Burley Parke, in the fading hours of 1965. They couldn't, but they were trying. At Tropical Park and Santa Anita, Wolfson's minions were buying other people's favorites in the morning to win in Wolfson's flamingo-and-black in the afternoon.
"I don't want to say anything against Mr. Wolfson," Van Berg said recently. "He sent me a nice letter of congratulation after it was over." Some horsemen at the Fair Grounds did resent Wolfson's invasion of the claiming field. At least one suspected the purchases were, in fact, short-term leases and offered Van Berg that sort of arrangement. "I thought we ought to win with what we had," Mr. Van said.
In 29 seasons, starting more than 16,000 horses over 46 tracks, Van Berg has won 3,021 races and $8,161,933 in pots ranging from the $39,500 acquired by Vantage in the Charles W. Bidwill Memorial Handicap at Hawthorne in 1954 to the 15 bucks Bud Smith got for finishing fourth at Omaha in 1938. Around the race secretary's office at the Fair Grounds they try to explain how: "Knows his business...never runs an unsound horse...uses common sense...he's working when the others are getting warm in the track kitchen...knows how to read a condition book." All that, plus a sixth sense for "tradin'," which is what Mr. Van still calls the process, even the haggling that led up to his purchase of Ramblin Road for $55,000 last May 31. Tradin' was a way of life to Van Berg before his first shave.
His father was a farmer of indifferent success near Aurora, Neb. "He was a barber, too," says Mr. Van, "but he didn't like that a-tall. So he did a lot of horse-tradin'. They was workhorses then, the best of them worth $85. My dad always told me you had to get 'em just a little cheaper so they'd be easier to sell."
It may be a shock in Columbus, Neb., where Medicare is a dirty word, but their No. 1 rugged individualist came to town on an early wave of collectivism. ("There's a man," an admirer said at the testimonial dinner, "who came here with nothing but ambition. He doesn't want any help from any government. He's done it all himself.") Van Berg's ambition wasn't availing him much in Aurora early in 1933, when he ran into another horse trader, Pete Larson. "Pete had been up around Columbus and made some nice money," Van Berg recalls. "He told me that Loup River public power project [an early Roosevelt REA project] was coming in, and the place was really going to grow." Mr. Van kissed the wife and kids and went up the road to Columbus. The tradin' was indeed good, and by the fall of 1935 construction of the sales pavilion began. The rest was individualism.
For all his success, Mr. Van is unlikely to be nominated to The Jockey Club. He has never started a horse at Aqueduct or Santa Anita, where his fame parallels that of Emil J. Paidar, the name on the barber chair: everybody recognizes it and nobody knows who he is. His limited breeding program ("14 mares in foal is too many") annually wins a good share of the prizes for Nebraska-breds, but he hasn't had a really successful homebred since Rose's Gem finished up with $230,964 in 1963. And he was a happy accident.