If you ask Tom Van Berg what enticed him back to training after a ten-year hiatus, he's quick to correct you. He wasn't coaxed, or tugged, or drawn back into the early mornings and long days; he was grabbed by the hands of fate, and the hands of his father.
The year after his return, Van Berg will lead Motion Emotion under the Twin Spires and saddle her for a run in the Kentucky Oaks, hoping for his first Grade 1 victory in an American classic. Never, in his wildest dreams, did he expect to be in this position in spring 2019.
A third generation horseman whose father Jack and grandfather Marion are both in the Hall of Fame, Van Berg developed his own string in the early 2000s, running largely on Kentucky/Indiana/Mid-Atlantic circuit with modest horses. Then, in 2008, Van Berg's oldest son, Tanner, was diagnosed with leukemia and Tom Van Berg walked away from training to look after him. He took a job working for Ragozin, and it came with benefits being a trainer had not – steady pay, steady hours, a chance to be in racing without living racing. He worked from home for the three years while Tanner underwent treatment.
Tanner went into remission at the end of 2008, and when Jack encountered health problems in more recent years, Tom was free to step in and help run the barn. Van Berg joked in 2017 that he came out of retirement to drive his father down to the track to watch horses train.
“He can sit in his truck and watch them train and yell at me,” he said, “And then I go back and yell at the assistants, or the grooms or whoever — the jockeys.”
Toward the end of his life, his father had just two concerns.
“When he was really sick and in the hospital, his last two wishes were that his three dogs were taken care of, and that Sammy had a barn full of horses to run,” Tom Van Berg said. “Sammy had first right of refusal.”
“Sammy” is Sammy Almaraz, who was Jack's assistant for nearly 40 years. Van Berg said the request prompted a team meeting that included longtime owners Mike Puhich, Mike Waters, Kay Stillman, and others. At the end of it, the Van Berg Board reached its conclusion – Sammy didn't want to train his own string, so Van Berg would step into the role instead, taking over his father's clients. It's a joint effort, as Van Berg insisted he couldn't throw himself into the job the way he had the first time around. This time, he needed enough support to have regular hours to spend with his family and Sammy was on board to help run things.
Jack Van Berg died in December 2017 at the age of 81, leaving a record of more than 6,500 victories and $85 million in stable earnings.
“I think when it started out last year it was 'We're in for Oaklawn and then we'll see how you do.' And then we did well at Oaklawn and we built from that,” he said. “It was such a quick turnaround that literally at my dad's visitation I was on the phone with my attorney, setting up the LLC, workman's comp, it was that ridiculously quick.”
For Tom Van Berg, the milestones have come quickly, and each one of them has been emotional. In January 2018, he got his first win since his father's death. In June, he began preparing his father's last group of 2-year-olds. On Breeders' Cup weekend, a 2-year-old named Jack Van Berg made it to the Churchill Downs winner's circle. Each moment was proud but bittersweet, and he knows the walk over on Friday will be no different.
For the most part, Van Berg believes training has kept him moving forward through his grief.
“When I'm with the horses, it doesn't sink into my mind. I think it's because when Dad and I were at separate tracks, the majority of the time when we talked it was when we were done with work and we were on the road to run a horse or go to the next track. Those are the hard times – when I'm driving and I want to pick up the phone,” Van Berg said.
Whatever pressure others might feel to deliver the fairy tale ending to the story, Van Berg seems immune. Even at morning line odds of 15-1 as Motion Emotion faces favored Bellafina, he's supremely confident in his filly and believes all the pieces are aligning for her just at the right time. With each start, he has learned more about her talents and believes she has a lethal combination of speed and adaptability. He attributes her second-place finish in the G3 Fantasy to a speed duel early with Brill, which she couldn't quite outlast because they hooked up so early. In the Oaks, he hopes one or two rivals will take the early lead and allow her to sit back and stalk – a tactic he thinks she can handle calmly.
It's funny how things work out, he mused Tuesday morning, observing the crowds of Derby Week visitors swarming the backstretch. If not for a plane ride, he may not have been in this situation at all. After Motion Emotion's allowance optional claiming win at Oaklawn in February, Van Berg said his phone was ringing off the hook. Owner Mark DeDomenico had a deal nearly finalized with an undisclosed partnership. The managing partner got on a four-hour flight, and in the meantime DeDomenico watched the race replay again. By the time the manager got off the plane, he'd changed his mind – and probably kept her from moving out of Van Berg's barn.
The experience is all the sweeter for Motion Emotion's kind personality. Van Berg's barn is on one of the busiest sections of Churchill Downs blacktop, with a track gap on one side and then backstretch recreation hall on the other. It won't bother her, he says.
“I can't say anything negative about her,” he said. “She's unbelievable. I actually think this is good because she gets used to it. In fact, she would go right in the middle of this crowd and socialize with them if she could. She loves the attention, loves people. The other horses in the barn are jealous, wondering why she's getting all the attention.”
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