Legendary Horse Trainer Tells Life Story in New Book
The story of Jack Van Berg can be told as an oral history from the legions of people he touched in his storied career, a career where he won the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It all sounds storybook: the boy who grew up on the farms of the Midwest who climbed to the tallest mountains in horse racing, until you start to read Jack: From Grit to Glory by Chris Kotulak.
Kotulak and Van Berg will be autographing copies of the book Saturday at the National Museum of Racing.
Kotulak came to the story while in the paddock at Hollywood Park. Kotulak has a wealth of stories and experiences from his time coming up at Arksarben, a Nebraska racetrack where he cut his teeth in the horse industry.
While in the Hollywood paddock, he ran into Van Berg. Kotulak wrote stories about Arksarben for a Midwest thoroughbred magazine and thought, as niche as it was, that his book lay tangled in those vignettes. He asked Van Berg if he had read his Arksarben stories, figuring they would’ve resonated with Van Berg.
“No,” Van Berg said, “but I want you to write my book.”
Kotulak was, to put it mildly, shocked and a touch flustered.
“Jack, let me think about it for a week or so,” Kotulak said. Kotulak knew the right people, knew who he could mine for information, and so he acquiesced, because here was a story that could thrive beyond the plains of Nebraska.
And what Kotulak found aside from the great horsemanship and the big horses, was an “impact Jack had from coast to coast,” Kotulak said.
“He was like an institution or a university,” continued Kotulak. “When [Jack] was up and strong for 20-30 years, those who followed his father (Marion Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer) and Jack, anybody who’s about 45-50 and worked in horse racing at some point they worked for Jack Van Berg.”
Through the early book signings where Kotulak and Van Berg began to meet readers and fans alike, people approached the table to spill their experiences, however tangential that experience may be to the Van Berg orbit.
The comments left on the book’s website illustrate this near-global impact Van Berg has had on people. Ron Ladd writes:
“… Several years ago I was working for my dad Don Ladd in Omaha & trained a few of my own horses. I had 1 horse that had gotten a quarter crack & with pretty much no success for 3 months in healing it 1 day my dad drove up to the barn & told me to get my horse out of his stall. I had no idea why or that when I did I'd see Jack standing outside the barn with a handful of tools. He told me to have someone hold the horse & come stand by him to watch what he was doing. He had went to a hardware store & purchased all the tools he needed & proceeded to work on my horse’s foot for well over an hour until he'd gotten the quarter crack completely cut out. When he was done he put the foot down & looked at me & said run him next week. I thought if I hadn't been able to run him for 3 months how could I run him in just a few days. Then I thought in my opinion I was standing by who I had always considered the best trainer in the world & if he said run him then run him. I ran him the next week & he ran third, then proceeded to run another third then a second. I've to this day always remembered that experience & thought what a great, quality man Jack is to of been at the top of his profession & he took the time to come over & help me. A groom/trainer with a few horses. Through the years I've told that story many times & have been told that he's done the same for others. What a Kind, Caring, & Genuine Man Jack is & so deserving of having his life story told. Thanks Jack & Chris.”
Van Berg “Comes from the Nebraska soil,” said Kotulak. “He was raised on the expectations his father had of him. He’d seen the success his father had and wanted to live up to his father’s expectations.”
His father is in the Hall of Fame, and in 1985 Jack Van Berg earned his plaque and immortality.
As Kotulak illustrates, Van Berg has a rough exterior, but can be kind to those who he feels works hard and deserves his reverence. While collaborating with Van Berg, Kotulak needed to nail a particularly tough chapter, a chapter that chronicles how Van Berg went broke over land disputes and attorney fees.
Kotulak pressed to hear something again, to get it down, to get it right.
“God dammit, I just told you that,” said Van Berg. “What don’t you understand?”
“Listen, dammit,” said Kotulak. “I feel like Helen f----ing Keller. You’re not giving me all the integers to the equation.”
Van Berg waited a beat. “What’s an integer?”
Kotulak and Van Berg are signing copies of the book at the racing museum Saturday from 10-12 and then at the racetrack from 1-5.
Brendan O’Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year.
You can follow Brendan on twitter: @BrendanOMeara
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