Hall Of Fame Trainer Jack Van Berg Dies

by | 12.27.2017 | 11:16am
Jack Van Berg

Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who trained 1988 Horse of the Year Alysheba, died Wednesday morning after a long battle with cancer, according to reports in the Daily Racing Form and BloodHorse. He was 81.

Van Berg, a Nebraska native, trained 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba. The talented colt was champion 3-year-old male that season, and went on to earn Horse of the Year and champion older male honors in 1988.

Van Berg also trained Gate Dancer, winner of the 1984 Preakness.

Van Berg was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, Marion, was inducted in 1970.

Van Berg was a mentor to trainers such as Bill Mott, Frankie Brothers, Loren Rettele and many others. Van Berg gave countless young people “a leg-up” in the horse racing industry and also helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable causes via his considerable talent as an auctioneer.

Earlier this year, Van Berg was the Dawn at Oaklawn guest with Nancy Holthus, recounting some of the highlights of his career.

A winner of 6,457 races, Van Berg is currently ranked Santa Anita's 22nd all-time stakes winning trainer with 31 added money triumphs, he defeated his good friend and fellow Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham in what was a battle of Derby winners in 1988, as Alysheba avenged a loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic five months earlier by defeating Ferdinand by a half length in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

Van Berg is survived by a son, trainer, Tom Van Berg, and three daughters, Tori, Tammy and Traci. He was predeceased earlier this year by another son, trainer Tim Van Berg.

Funeral services are pending.

  • snowchrome

    RIP Jack Van Berg. I remember seeing him at Hollywood Park and Fairplex. One of the greatest.

  • whirlaway

    I always enjoyed when interviews were on with Jack Van Berg. Another person would love to spend an afternoon with listening to I bet many great stories. RIP some star horses will be waiting for you.

    • JerseyGirl

      I came to know him the same way. What an outstanding horseman💔

      • whirlaway

        A fine horseman he will be missed. Hope you are doing well, not too many posts from you lately. Pretty cold up in NH but all is well.

        • JerseyGirl

          Good to hear from you whirlaway. I read PR daily but do not post often. Just too lazy to log in on disqus for every article. Hope your holiday was grand😎

          • whirlaway

            Holiday was very quiet just my husband and I very little family but we value the peace and no drama. Actually same on here same old, horses change but not much else. A few folks seem absent hope they are ok. Quiet time of the year for racing which is good need down time even from something we enjoy.

  • nicehorsey

    Sorry to hear. Jack had many triumphs in racing and recovered from many reversals in life. His willingness to mentor young trainers endeared him to many successful careers in racing.

  • SteveD

    Shocking and heartbreaking.
    I was honored to know Jack and he was a truly gifted horseman.
    He will be dearly missed.

    • Ivan John Skibinsky

      I wish I could have met him, he was a great horseman.

      • Robert Leaf Jr.

        I met Mr. Vanberg One time in the Spit box at the Kentucky Oaks. I galloped The Filly that he just beat. Before I could introduce myself he quoted my name to me and told me what a great job I did with that filly. What an honor I will never forget !!

  • Dave Stevenson

    Jack was a wonderful horsemen with a great personality. Because of of his size and height not many realized that he was also a jockey in his younger years.

    • Sweede

      Did you read the book about him?

  • Ruffian31

    Probably my all time favorite trainer. He knew horses, how to train them and how to get the best out of them. He’s the last of a near dead breed now as far as trainers go. RIP Jack, you will be dearly missed.

  • Columbus

    Jack VanBerg = AKSARBEN. Both are now gone and racing will never be the same.

  • Scot Morley


    What a job he did with him. Chris M. cost him the triple crown that year. By not sending him to the front with that slow pace in the Belmont. Jack, was an icon, and something that most trainers
    don’t have today. Integrity!

  • santacruzchuck

    Jack was the most innovative trainer of hi generation. He invented horse ear muffs due to Gate Dancer being bothered by the noise of the crowd.

    The most unusual piece of equipment I ever saw Jack use was at Santa Anita on a low level claimer.

    I noticed a thin cord coming out from underneath the saddle that lead to and underneath the horses tail, which was connected to a sack of sorts which contained the horses testicles.

    Needless to say the horse showed a massive form reversal and prevailed at odds in excess of 25-1. The horse was by Sauce Boat.

    True Story!

  • Marlaine Meeker

    I wish I could have been a shadow or a fly on the wall for just one day with this man. Racing has lost a legend. RIP Jack Van Berg. My sincere condolences to all those most close to him.

  • DeniseSteffanus

    I am so very sad today. My buddy Jack Van Berg has died. I say “my buddy” because although I never met him in person, we had developed a fond relationship via many phone conversations over the years. There was never a time that Jack didn’t take my call, and we’d chat on and on after we took care of business. I loved to listen to his stories of the Golden Age of racing.

    A little known story about Jack shows just the kind of person he was. When in Hot Springs one year, his grooms found a herd of starving Thoroughbreds in a secluded pasture while they were trail riding. They told Jack about it when they came back to the track and said they intended to report it to the stewards. Jack said to them, “No. That man’s having a hard enough time and you don’t need to add to it by turning him in to the stewards.”

    Jack sent his people to feed all those horses every day of the Hot Springs meet, out of his own pocket, and he never even asked whose horses they were.

    Jack was gruff on the outside and never pulled a punch when you talked with him. His word was gold, and he had a disdain for people who were “bullshitters,” as he called them. He loved horses, he loved racing as it used to be, and he hated what racing had become.

    We have lost one of the greatest icons in American racing and one of the finest gentlemen ever to step foot on the racetrack.

    Rest in peace, my friend. I will miss you.

    • Sweede

      That is that man he was, loved him dearly,he will be missed.

    • Paula

      Jack was one of the most caring gentleman I’ve ever known. I had the honor of working beside him for 8 years as his Secretary…today my 💙 is broken, but I know he’s in a better place..all my love to his Family💕

    • Matthew Fitch

      Thank you for sharing that story.

    • JerseyGirl

      Inspirational indeed. I know there’s no one else like him training today. May he Rest In Peace with the beloved Alysheba😓

    • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

      “No. That man’s having a hard enough time and you don’t need to add to it by turning him in to the stewards.”

      He did what should have been done, he showed compassion
      This is the way things should be done, kindness over tattling

    • Don’thaveaclue

      Thank you Denise for sharing your memories of your buddy, Jack. Your description of his character touched me. Why? My grandpa, a Montana horseman – born in 1900 – was the exact same way! Gruff (or totally honest) on the outside, but so respected by everyone because of his integrity. He became a Sheriff in his community and raised a WW11 P-51 fighter pilot (my father). Your story of the Thoroughbreds let out to a secret pasture by a down-and-out trainer was so good. Jack: “no, we’re not going to make matters worse by reporting him to the stewards.” Essentially, he said “We’re going to take care if this and feed his horses on our own”. And he did. Compassion in spades. Thanks for reminding me of my roots through your friendship with the incredible, irreplaceable Jack Van Berg.

  • lastromntribune

    the man was an absolute GIANT of the game….RIP jack

  • Johnathon Curtsinger

    I was very lucky to know Mr. Van Berg he had a great personality and gave me the opportunity to ride his horses.. R.I.P. my friend

  • donald altemose

    If I remember correctly he had $3500 claimers in the same barn with stake winners. Trainers like him and harry trotsek is the biggest difference with there era then with today’s “designer” trainers.

  • Delrene

    Sad news to read of his passing. May he Rest In Peace

  • Sweede

    Knew him and loved him,I’m heartbroken

  • Richard C

    It is well worth the time to watch “Dawn At Oaklawn 2017 with Jack Van Berg”.

    • StrideBig

      Do you have a link? ~K

      • Richard C

        Click on the link in the story above — you can view it her (PR) or click over to YouTube.

  • Steven Fortuna

    Very Sad News I Loved Jack he was a Good Kind Generous Man!! I am so Fortunate that I was able to spend quite a bit of Fun Times with Jack because he trained 2 Horses (Welcome Day and Barbaric Pleasure) That I was in a partnership with !! Jack was the Best!!
    Steven Billy Bones Fortuna

  • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

    I am sorry to hear of this.
    I knew Jack Van Berg more so from watching the TVG Legends and Interview by Chris Lyons

    It was good stuff!!!
    May Jack Van Berg Rest in Peace

    That’s two great trainers to die in a week’s time
    I didn’t know that LeRoy S. Jolley had died until yesterday at least Van Berg had some wins this year (42) Jolley had none and his last race (Nicole) was a disaster because she did not finish
    I hope Nicole gets another chance she was sired by Animal Kingdom
    As for Van Berg’s horses, I am sure they are in good hands

  • USCDAN1986

    Will miss gentlemen Jack.. Truly a great man and huge heart.. RIP Jack!

  • Alan Shuback

    Sorry to see Jack go. I made a lot of money betting on Bet Twice to beat Alysheba in the Belmont and the Haskell.

  • Bryan Langlois

    Another irreplaceable horseman has left us. So Sad….

  • Scooter Dickey

    Loss of a very good man !!!!!!

  • Steve

    I got to know Jack a little bit when he took a liking to one of the mutuel workers and hung around the mezzanine during the races. A nice guy with a great sense of humor

  • gus stewart

    To me he was the clint eastwood, dirty harry, of so cal racing. No nonsense trainer called it as he saw it. Many mornings it was just reassuring a trainer like jvb would be there. Always a nice man first then a horseman. Heard he had some tough times for a few years but his years of doing the right thing for the horse and racing, will always be remembered. Rip jvb..

  • JerseyGirl

    Truly one of the greats without a doubt. A real horseman. God doesn’t make them like that anymore. Go with Alysheba to Heavens Meadow💔

  • thisismyonlypostonthesubject

    The accolades sent Mr. Jolley’s and Mr. Van Berg’s way upon their deaths are so refreshing to hear in an often cynical and angry world. How nice to learn of the respect people felt for these men, and how interesting to hear the stories being told which underscore the generosity these trainers showed when passing their knowledge on to others.

  • Roger Clinton

    I don’t know where to start, It’s hard to write through the tears. What I do know is that he would be saying to me right now, “Rog, stop that cryin’, Don’t cry for me,” Jack has been like a father-figure to me since I was a boy. It was easy for me to be tough & strong when I was with him, but it’s tough today. He was simply the strongest, toughest, hardest-working MAN I ever knew. I never wanted him to see or hear me weak in any way, & when he did…, he called me on it! Don’t get me wrong, Jack had a unique sense of humor that was straight-forward, in-your-face, “a little gruff” & a bit of teddy bear thrown in from time to time. He was REAL & he was my buddy…, from Aksarben to Oaklawn to Hollywood, Santa Anita, & Del Mar to Churchill with some Texas & Oklahoma also & finally back to Oaklawn The Horse Racing World, the rest of the world that knew him, lost a giant today! He was THE MAN! PERIOD! I loved him so much, as did so many others. He went out the same way he came in…, A WINNER! Today, he saddled his last winner, his toughest runner EVER…, one that no one else could ever saddle. It’s name was Jack Van Berg! A Champion, an Icon, a Hero…, forever missed, always remembered! Thank you, Jack, for the memories & lessons, & congratulations on being in THE GREATEST WINNERS’ CIRCLE OF ALL!!!

    • StrideBig

      Lovely tribute to your friend, sir. ~K

    • Lisa

      Very nice, Roger. He was a man among men and hands down the best horseman I’ve had the pleasure to know.

  • Saudi Burton


  • kramhslew

    So, Jack VB came to the Information Window during the old Pomona Fair. Jeanette was tending the window and I was hanging out. Anyway, Jack cashed a few checks and then he leaned in, “pointed at himself” with a grin, never spoke but we knew. He wanted to put a smile on our face. Jack’s horse paid over $50 to win. Jeanette and I were smiling.

  • stesoprano

    I used to follow the AK-SAR-BEN meet in Omaha from High School to its unfortunate demise. I 29er from Sioux city to Omaha. Jack as trainer and his dad Marion, dominated that meet every year. Always had top Jocks aboard such as Don Lewis, J.L. Lively, Sam Maple, Leroy Moyers and the list goes on. He always was a classy Guy. Too bad they can’t clone his characteristics into The Sport of Kings.

  • Kathy Young

    I am so, so sorry to read this. Jack Van Berg was just wonderful in so many ways, as a trainer, father and horseman start to finish. He actually sat on a horse to watch his youngsters working on the track. He was NOT the “three piece suit, slicked hair and rosebud in the lapel” type. He was “hands on.” I met one of his daughters who was riding in an adult amateur clinic (southern region) of the California Dressage Society maybe 10 years ago. I told her how much I admired her father. Like DeniseSteffanus below, I never met him in person, but he and my favorite jockey Chris McCarron had a wonderful relationship–adversarial in the best, lighthearted way. I admire Chris, who rode my horse, Echo Dancer in the late 90s to his times “in the money,” and any friend of his must be a pretty good guy too. God speed, Mr. Van Berg, and my sympathies to your family.

  • Ben Hudson

    I had the pleasure of being around Jack a few times when Alysheba was running. Also spent a few hours flying around Texas with him on a small plane and really enjoyed the conversation. But in my more than 50 years in racing I have never enjoyed anything as much as I did a couple of times that I was there in a small group at the with Jack and his buddy Blane Schvaneveldt. Boy! If you have not read Chris Kotulak’s book JACK From Grit To Glory you need to do it.

  • Ida Lee

    RIP Mr. Van Berg and my heart felt condolences to his family….a very sad end of year…..Alysheba was my second favorite during his racing career….my first was Ferdinand …I was crazy about him…so much sadness here….when Alysheba returned to live at the KY Horse Park, I was so excited to have him back….I was getting ready to go see him when he passed…..that Classic with Ferdinand and Alysheba was one of the greatest races ever….what a great job of training …..

  • Always Curious

    I bet it will be hard to find a copy of his book now:) What a great man. I am glad his stable was on the upswing & he was having winners again before he passed. I loved his comment, “I still get up every morning at 4, I just can’t do nothing”.

  • Tlj Jamison

    I was honored to know Jack and he was a truly gifted horseman.

    He will be dearly missed.R.I.P.

  • Lisa

    Jack Van Berg-
    I’ve had the absolute PLEASURE of knowing Jack since 1982. I was a groom for him and went on to work at his farm in Goshen,kY. Fairly certain he was
    Leading trainer that year at Aksarben. Jack wasn’t as much a man as he was a legend and bigger than life – I think John Wayne. His Shedrow was run with the precision of a much feared military presence. He ‘informed’ me my horses needed and egg a day so on my lowly wages my horses got their eggs and let me tell you- Jack KNEW what he was talking about because there wasn’t a horse led to the paddock for a race that didn’t shine like a Million bucks. SHOEING- oh LORD!!! He says he hated holding for shoer but let me You that the shoers deserved an award in patience. I could not COUNT the times the rasp was yanked from their hands while jack took over. I’ve seen him whittle their feet in some totally clearly different way and they would WIN the next out. Some people do— some people just are, but Jack just WAS. ID SAY COMMON HORSE SENSE AND HORSE WHISPERING. The FUNNEST thing about being on Jacks team and by God it was a Team because you pretty much LIVED at the barn. Anyway- his superstitions-For Example, if
    You hung a rake or anything that had a piece of straw on it, just get ready because you ARE ABOUT TO HEAR AN EARFUL!! Same as if there would be an 1/4 inch piece of straw in horses tail going out for a mere gallop. He would TURN THEM AWAY to be taken back to barn and GROOMED PROPERLY!! NOPE NOPE. You work there,
    You do it correctly. He taught me so
    Much and he truly was a horse whisperer. The meanest horses would snuggle Jack. He knew their language.
    Once an odd hotwalker decided to toss a mojo bag On top of the barn. When he found out— the entire morning operation GROUND to a halt until he had someone scamper up a
    Ladder and get rid of that horrible thing.
    When Jack was in town we became automated and completely
    Perfect workers. He scared us and yet we all stayed for LONG HOURS because YOU JUST KNEW you were getting years of wisdom. He is the master.
    Jack was the FUNNEST, best PRANKSTER AS WELL. There was never a
    Time where he wasn’t acting up making something funny happen to a friend.
    I went to work at his farm in Goshen. He let me care For the magnificent horse, Bold Ego. When he showed up leading him to his stall he said ‘LISA- NEVER EVER AND I MEAN NOT ONCE TURN YOUR BACK ON THIS GUY. HE WILL TEAR YOU
    UP!!’ So about 10 days went by. Bold Ego was SO SWEET but I remember Jacks words so I never Let My guard down. Not once. Jack returned to town and asked ‘how’s the big horse?’ And I replied ‘Jack- I think maybe he’s changed here at farm because he’s super sweet and gentle’. Well—- he laughed his butt off because Bold Ego was a true pet. Didn’t have a mean bone in him. I’d spent 10 days in sheer horror this horse would freak out and trample me to death. I’ll always remember his swagger and laugh as he walked off down the Shedrow laughing his butt off about it. . Such a prankster.
    Anyway- Jack, you are an amazing horsemen and someone I feel so grateful to have learned a lot from. I thought you were too da** tough and too much a legend to ever die so this is very surreal and heartbreaking. I hope we can put a statue of you somewhere. We need those innovative, horse smart, intelligent eyes watching over us. Take care ole friend and a big thank You for your incredible contribution to our sport. I will miss you. Lisa Daniels (Cordova)

  • Sue Weisenreider

    I interviewed Jack Van Berg 1980s during Alysheba heyday @ Hollywood Park. He was a class act & will be missed by the racing world.

  • Will Styles

    Jack Van-Berg will be sorely missed. He positively affected so many people’s lives buy employing those who had no where else to turn for a job. To sharing his horsemanship skills with anyone who asked. He had a big heart and was extremely grounded. Rip buddy.

  • Ed Fountaine

    Funny story I heard that might even be true. When Jack was training Alysheba at Churchill Downs before the 1987 Derby, he was standing at the rail on the backstretch when a horse galloping by caught his eye.

    “Go find out who that horse is,” he told a friend. “We’re going to cash a bet!”

    The friend found out, came back and said, “Jack, that was Manila!”

  • Mr. S A

    And why is the flag at Santa Anita at not at half mast!!!!!! For shame on the former great race place …..

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