Tom Van Berg Hoping For ‘Fairytale Ending’ With Father’s Last Juveniles

Trainer Tom Van Berg took over the Jack Van Berg racing stable upon the death of his Hall of Fame father on Dec. 27. Previously, Van Berg had been helping his 81-year-old father with his horse operation, including during the huge Ellis Park meet they had last summer to finish third in the trainer standings with 13 wins and seven seconds out of 36 starters.

Tom Van Berg trained on his own for nine years before leaving the track in 2007 to spend more time at home with his young sons. Now he’s back training full-time in his own name, with 24 horses at Churchill Downs, with his dad’s longtime employee Sammy Alvarez at his side. Jack Van Berg — whose 6,523 career victories include the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Horse of the Year Alysheba — remains a strong influence on the stable.

The following is a Question and Answer session between Jennie Rees and Tom Van Berg:

The stable had a great meet last year at Ellis. Obviously things have changed since then with your dad’s death.

“It’s probably going to be the most difficult meet (emotionally), because that’s where we spent the most amount of time and had the most interaction the past few years — at Ellis Park last year, and he did have a really strong meet. It’s going to be tough to duplicate what we did last year, with our numbers being down. We’re going to keep on trying to do what he would have done. We’re going to stay at Churchill and ship on down to run and try to build up our stable throughout the meet and into the fall.”

You had a lot of claiming horses last year. How might the stable’s complexion be different now?

“Yeah, we did have a lot of claiming horses. And the main clients who had those horses, they kept everything on the West Coast this year in the summer, particularly at Emerald Downs. And they’ll join back up with us in the fall. They don’t have the numbers they had with Dad for Ellis. So it will be a smaller group of clients and 2-year-olds running at Ellis. We have 11 two-year-olds in now that we’re getting ready. Hopefully we’ll see a couple at the end of the Churchill meet, and then get ready for Ellis Park.”

What about the 2-year-old program at Ellis Park?

“We had the two horses that ran in the Ellis Park Juvenile (finishing second with 81-1 shot Northern Trail and fifth with 18-1 Make Noise after they won maiden races at Ellis) last year. This will be the first year me bringing the 2-year-olds around on my own. We’re hopeful we have a good group. Between two different syndicates and a client, we have 10 that we bought as yearlings for Dad. Those are the last ones he purchased at the sale. He picked them out.

“The last group we’re getting ready to release is a group of six. It’s going to be under JVB Legacy Racing. It’s the last six he put together (in a partnership) and purchased. We named them all after JVB-isms. We have a Paynter colt. He was also so confident in himself that he said, “If I tell you tomorrow it’s Easter you can paint your eggs.” So we named a horse Paynt Your Eggs. He always had a Ziploc bag of atomic fireballs. We wanted to name them Hot Balls, but they wouldn’t let us name them that. So we named him Jacks Fire Balls. He’s out of a mare named Clancy’s Candy. That was always Dad’s favorite candy, atomic fireballs.

“We have a nice Data Link called The Columbus Kid, going back to where he was born in Columbus, Nebraska. One is named Jay Vee Bee. Dreamin n Schemin, A Real Gem. Just a fun thing, when they run to make people think of Dad.”

You were the one really hitting the highway last summer between Louisville and Ellis Park.

“He had pneumonia in both lungs, so his health was really declining. He’d come out to Churchill in the morning, stay in his truck and watch them train and then go to his house here and watch them race on TV. I would drive up and down. He’d come out once in a while, but it wasn’t as much as the year prior. He tried to do it, but his health just wouldn’t let him do it.

“We really thought he’d get through the Oaklawn Park meet (over the winter in Arkansas). That was what he was really looking forward. He always said he had another Derby horse in him. It’s funny, because Mike Waters, the Muddy Waters Stable, has a horse he really likes out there (on the West Coast). He named him Jack Van Berg, got the name approved (by The Jockey Club). That’s one of the best he likes out of his group. He said, ‘Your dad always said he had another Derby in him, but I didn’t know it was going to be as a horse.’

“You hope you see stuff like that with a fairytale ending.”

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