Sunday, April 6, 2014

Patrick Murphy, Director of Poker Operations

 When Patrick Murphy arrived in Florida 20 years ago to work in a new card room at the Seminole Indians Casino in Tampa, few observers could have predicted the explosion of the interest in poker, especially among college-age men and young professionals. Within the next few years, however – as ESPN expanded its coverage of events such as the World Series of Poker, showing the players’ hole cards and focusing on the personalities and strategies – ratings skyrocketed. Murphy, a 39-year-old Massachusetts native who also worked on the popular “cruise ships to nowhere” and training new dealers, had returned to the New England area for a couple of years to work in corporate restaurant management, but in 2005 he knew the time was ripe to return to Florida. After working as a manager in the room, less than two years later, he was promoted by Tampa Bay Downs as its Director of Poker Operations; since then, he has overseen the development and growth of The Silks Poker Room into arguably the area’s most opulent, competitive and player-friendly destination. With 23 tables located on the third floor of the racetrack, Silks – open daily from 10 a.m.-4 a.m. – provides such games as Seven-Card Stud, Hi-Lo and Texas Hold’em, along with a diverse dining menu that makes it easier to lose with three of a kind to an inside straight. In addition to tableside dining and cocktails, Silks offers more than 50 plasma televisions, a 120-inch big-screen TV, a private high-limit room and relaxing tableside massages by specialists from Amenity Pro. Players throughout the area have responded to the room’s daily and tournament offerings, and a recent promotion culminated with the giveaway of a 2014 Toyota Corolla S Plus CVT to a lucky patron. “It’s all about customer service,” Murphy says of The Silks Poker Room’s runaway success. “All the poker rooms in the state have the exact same product, so what do you do to keep people coming back?” Certainly, horsemen at Tampa Bay Downs have faith in what Murphy is doing; about $1.2 million in purse money this season was funded through poker-room activity, helping them sustain a foothold in an ever-evolving economic climate. The Silks Poker Room’s burgeoning success is a source of professional and personal fulfillment for Murphy, who lives in nearby Land O’ Lakes with his wife Cheri, their sons Kolin, 8, and John, 6, and daughter Erin, 3. In this latest installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ “Racing In The Sunshine” profile series, Murphy took time to reflect on the integration of top-level poker into a Thoroughbred racetrack that opened in 1926.

WHEN I STARTED DEALING AT SEMINOLE IN THE MID-1990S, there was a running joke that high-stakes poker would arrive in Florida in two weeks. It was a long two weeks, but the potential was always there. If you wanted to play poker then, your choices basically were Las Vegas and a few card rooms in California and Mississippi. It started off in Florida as penny-ante games with 25 and 50-cent betting where the pots could not exceed $10, but over time the industry found loopholes to run tournaments, and gradually the restrictions were taken away to allow larger buy-ins and no-limit games. Most poker lovers could see the writing on the wall, even if it took longer than two weeks. Florida has always been a great vacation destination, and now poker players can get sun, fun and gambling while they’re here.

WE DO EVERYTHING WE CAN TO MAKE IT AS ATTRACTIVE AS WE CAN to get people to keep coming back. From building a poker room with a finish-line view of the racetrack, to the feel of the room, to our dining menu, everything is geared toward our customers. We’ve always prided ourselves on having the best dealers in the area. The No. 1 quality they must have is friendliness. It can be intimidating to sit down at a table to gamble for the first time, so our dealers walk them through the steps as they go to make them feel comfortable. No one wants to come back if they feel they’re out of their element or can’t adapt to that kind of game.

ONE OF THE THINGS I ENJOY MOST ABOUT MY JOB IS THE RELATIONSHIPS I’ve made with our customers. When we have a promotion like last weekend – with the car giveaway and cash giveaways every half-hour – and the room is packed and there are huge waiting lists to get a table, you know it’s succeeding. Seeing the hustle and bustle of the players, and knowing that the staff and company are making money – it is very rewarding.

I CAN DEFINITELY SEE THE POTENTIAL FOR TAMPA BAY DOWNS TO BECOME A RESORT DESTINATION equal to anything in the state of Florida. Obviously, there are horse racing fans who have never stepped foot in Silks, and there are poker players not too interested in racing. And there are customers who only come here to drive and practice at The Downs Golf Practice Facility. But, come on – being able to watch a few races, play poker, grab something to eat and channel your inner Phil Mickelson? There are not many places where you can do all that in one day. I think there has been a misconception that this is a different business, but we are all part of the whole Tampa Bay Downs.

IN SILKS, YOU CAN FIND A GAME FOR A $40 BUY-IN AND ONE FOR $1,000 or higher. So the novice tables, so to speak, are those on the smaller side, which people can use as a stepping stone to the next level. They don’t have to be a stepping stone; some of our recreational players are happy to play at those levels on a regular basis. We expanded last July by adding Players Poker Championship (PPC) Tour events, which enable players to qualify for the PPC World Championship in Aruba. We’ll be holding the PPC North American Championship here in July; the buy-in for the main event will be $580, with guaranteed prize money of more than $300,000 and four $5,000 Aruba packages at stake.

WHAT’S IT TAKE TO BE A SUCCESSFUL PLAYER? FIRST AND FOREMOST, it’s patience, because the cards aren’t always going to go your way. Even though luck plays a role, though, you have to put the time in to win consistently. That means studying the game and staying in the loop as far as what’s going on in the industry. I’ve never been one for reading a lot of “how-to” books, but I know there are a lot of people who do. Experience is a big factor; the more hands you play, the better you get. There are a lot of young kids who are seeing five or six games at a time on the Internet, so they see many more scenarios than the average person who sits down at a table and is playing maybe 30 hands in an hour.

FOR A WHILE, THAT’S WHAT I DID FOR A LIVING – PLAY POKER part-time and deal part-time. I was pretty decent, but obviously your priorities flip when you have kids. Just like someone who plays horses for a living, it’s hard to achieve any long-term success, unless you get real lucky and make a six-figure score in a tournament and are smart enough not to gamble it all back. But I know people who travel here to play and make their living in our room. We have some really aggressive games, and there are guys who sit down and don’t blink at playing for $30-$40,000.

FROM THE BEGINNING, WE KNEW THE BEST WAY TO DRAW PEOPLE AND RETAIN BUSINESS was to make sure our staff is the best it can be and make the building and our amenities stand out. The tableside massage services are very popular, and we have staff trained to accept wagers on the horses. I know it’s a cliché, but you are only as strong as your weakest link, and all of our employees have their role in making the operation a success. I am proud of all of them – the managers, tournament directors, cashiers, floor staff and members of the cleaning crew.

WE PROMOTE A LOT OF CHARITY AND FUND-RAISING EVENTS, and I’m always looking for new ways to increase our community involvement. In the past couple of years, we’ve held events for Ronald McDonald House, Support our Troops, Shriners and various youth sports organizations. If we can promote our business and give back at the same time, it’s a win-win for everyone. 

THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN TALK IN FLORIDA OF ADDING TABLE GAMES AND/OR SLOT MACHINES, and I’m open to all of it, because you know you’re giving more people what they want. We definitely have an eclectic mix of players, from ages 18-90, with about 10-15 percent of poker players being women. So I would expect things such as slot machines, blackjack and roulette wheels would give all of our customers attractive options they currently lack.

MY MAJOR SOURCE OF RECREATION IS FOLLOWING THE RED SOX AND THE PATRIOTS. My wife, Cheri, goes crazy every year because I try to go to as many games as I can. I always say the Sox are going to win the World Series, and you have to admit, three of the last 10 isn’t half-bad. I spend a lot of time with the kids, and we just got them a new puppy. We’re building a screened-in pool, because I want our house to be that neighborhood place where everyone hangs out. Whether it is after school or summertime, they can spend all their time there.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ricardo Feliciano, Jockey

For the Feliciano family, an otherwise run-of-the-mill allowance race at Thistledown outside Cleveland in August of 1997 proved to be a symbolic passing of the torch. Young Ricardo – who had ridden his first winner only a few weeks earlier and would celebrate his 21st birthday the following day – was on a confirmed closer named Call Me Marfa. His father Benny Feliciano, a past Tampa Bay Downs riding champion with more than 2,600 career victories at the time, rode Go Kaz. Adding to the family drama was the fact Go Kaz, an Ohio-bred gelding, was trained by Miguel Feliciano, Benny’s older brother and Ricardo’s uncle. Ricardo kept Call Me Marfa at the rear of the field early, asked for his best approaching the stretch and found a seam between horses, beating his father to the wire in the final jump. Although Benny rode his share of winners for the next couple of years before joining Miguel in the training ranks, it was time for Ricardo to carry on the family heritage. With more than 1,700 victories, mount earnings of $23.4 million and a reputation as one of the best gate riders in the business, Ricardo has rewarded his father and uncle – both trainers at Tampa Bay Downs – for their faith in his ability to achieve his lifelong dream. Ricardo, who has competed here the past 15 years and is based at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., in the summer, lives in the Cleveland area with his wife Lady and their sons Benny, 3, and Armani, soon to be 1. Ricardo’s mother Millie and sister Carmen work in a doctor’s office in Cleveland. Currently just outside the top 10 jockeys locally with 18 victories after a slow start, Ricardo, now 37, shares his passion for his calling and the horses in this installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ “Racing In The Sunshine” series of profiles.

I WAS PROBABLY 5 OR 6 WHEN I FIRST GOT THE FEVER of wanting to put on the pants and boots, get on a horse and do the same thing as my dad. Having already gone through it himself, he would have preferred seeing me go to college and do something more stable than being a jockey. But he knew how badly I wanted it, so he backed me 100 percent. I rode my first race at Classic Mile Park in Ocala when I was 11; it was just down the stretch for young kids, part of a country day at the races. I rode against three other horses and finished third, and it was very cool. I know my dad had a ball, too, because that was his little boy out there on a horse.

BY THAT TIME, I ALREADY KNEW I HAD NO DESIRE TO GO TO COLLEGE, so my father started taking me to my uncle’s barn during the summer. I was working with my uncle’s horses, but my dad would be showing me what to do – how to put on bandages, how to tack up a horse, cleaning the stalls. He taught me everything from the ground up, and I could barely wait until I graduated high school (Bedford High in Ohio) to go to the racetrack.

THE EDUCATION OF RICARDO FELICIANO – I guess you would call it my apprenticeship, before I became an apprentice jockey – wasn’t over. I got up in the mornings to gallop horses for my uncle and other trainers, then I worked as a valet at Thistledown for three years while I was learning to be a jockey. A valet is the guy who makes sure a rider’s tack and boots are clean, hangs up their silks for each race, organizes their equipment and provides their supplies and accessories. My dad was good friends with all those riders, and a few of them took me under their wing: guys like Julio Felix, Heriberto Rivera, Jr., and the late Michael Rowland.

THAT WAS EVERY YOUNG KID’S DREAM: TO BE IN THE ROOM with guys who are doing what you want to do. You get to watch all the races, and you hear every story from every jock after a race, all raw and uncensored, right there. I learned there are no shortcuts to success, even for the best jockeys. I saw a lot of stuff and learned a lot those three years, and by the time I started riding, I was ready.

IT’S JUST THAT ADRENALINE RUSH, MAN – the fact you cross the wire first against a group of them, and you feel like you’re part of that. You carry that horse home; it’s a feeling you can’t explain unless you do it. Money is another thing I like about my job, of course, but you’ve got to win to make the money. I have a great passion for horses. I grew up with them all my life. I put a lot of trust into them. They have so much power, you know if they get it in their minds to do something, they’re going to do it, with or without you. I don’t think about that part too much. If you do, you might as well not even ride.

MY AGENT, PAULA BACON, ALSO HAS RONNIE ALLEN, JR.’S BOOK. Some people might say that’s like being the guy who hit behind Hank Aaron for the Braves, but I don’t look at it that way. Ronnie has so much business, he can’t ride every horse, and a lot of times I’ll end up riding one of his calls that may be the better horse in the race because he has to keep someone else happy. That works both ways too, but at this meeting especially, Ronnie has been an inspiration. When you see a guy his age cruising around the track whupping butt, you feel you can do it too. It’s cool to ride with guys with that kind of knowledge and experience and desire.

HORSE RACING CAN TAKE YOU TO A LOT OF DIFFERENT PLACES, and this year I’ve won races in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. One of the horses I won on, Town Hall, had been claimed last fall at Belmont. They like to use out-of-town riders, and I was paid to come in and ride. Jose Ferrer, Jose Lopez and Julio Felix were there, too, and Victor Lebron, who grew up in St. Croix, rides there. I think it’s easier because the fields are smaller, but when that gate opens a switch goes off, the adrenaline starts flowing and it is all business. They only race one day a month, and it is a huge festival. The people there have so much love for the sport.

MY DAD ALWAYS PUT IT IN MY HEAD THAT IF I WANTED TO BE A JOCKEY, I had to learn to save money for the slow times or when I was injured and couldn’t ride. I make most of my income up north, and it is so competitive here, with so many riders, that I have to tighten my belt and cut down my spending. I make enough here to pay the bills, keep my head above water and, hopefully, be able to come back next year after a good summer.

A LOT OF PEOPLE TELL ME I’M A STRONG GATE RIDER. I think I’m a good finisher, too; you can’t be one-dimensional and expect to win much. Races can be won or lost at the break, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time analyzing. When I rode in Chicago, E.T. Baird, who was one of the best speed riders in the country, helped me a lot coming out of the gate, because that wasn’t one of my strong points then. When I went to Mountaineer, that really peppered me up as far as enhancing my gate skills because it seems like everybody there sends their horse and you have to get good position early.

OBVIOUSLY, YOU WANT YOUR HORSE STANDING STRAIGHT and not moving around in the gate too much. I give my horses a lot of rein – don’t fuss with them or try to grab them or anything – and let them do it on their own. I try to let them get their feet under them and take it from there. A lot of jocks try to shove on them early, but I just let them do their thing and it usually seems to work out.

IT’S KIND OF FUNNY – MY DAD, WHO IS SMALL FOR A JOCKEY, always looks at me like I’m his little boy. Every now and then he nags at me like I’m still 10, to the point where I just shake my head and say ‘Yeah, dad, whatever.’ But the truth is, he’s my biggest hero. I’ve been blessed. The older I get, the more I realize how right he was when he told me all those little things. You don’t understand it until you get older and have kids yourself, and then it clicks and you realize why he stayed up all night wondering when you were coming home. I’m lucky I have a dad who showed me the ropes and kept me from taking the wrong path.

I’VE RIDDEN SOME REAL NICE HORSES FOR MY UNCLE MIGUEL – Pay the Man, a 10-year-old mare who has won 21 stakes and more than $1-million; Bernie Blue, who was still winning stakes as an 8-year-old; and Majestic Dinner, another multiple-stakes winner bred and owned by Dr. D.W. Frazier (Pyrite Stables), my uncle’s main client. Miguel has always been a soft-spoken person; I was fortunate to fall into that spot at the start of my career where he always had a string of more than 20 horses. He is a very good person to ride for, he never complains about anything and he has nice horses. That’s a heck of a trifecta and I feel pretty blessed about it.

I COULD SEE ONE OF MY SONS FOLLOWING IN MY FOOTSTEPS. It’s only natural for a little kid to want to do what daddy does. I feel the same way about it as my father did –I hope they’re going to take the brain route and go to school and try to find a more stable career than being a jockey. But if riding horses is what they want to do, I’ll back them up 100 percent, like my dad did with me.

ON OFF DAYS, I ENJOY FISHING IN THE CHANNELS AND JUST HANGING OUT with my kids and family. We have a house in Cleveland, but eventually I’d like to get a little farm where we can have some animals, like the farm my dad used to have in Ohio. I’m pretty laid-back – I’m not one of these adventurous guys who like to do all sorts of crazy stuff. To me, a good day when I’m not riding is throwing some food on the barbecue grill and kicking back.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Vanessa Nye, Owner

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, criminal defense attorney Vanessa Nye unwinds from a high-energy workday in the company of her 9-year-old gelding, Diamond Steal, at nearby Half Pass Stables. Nye – who raced him during his 5, 6 and 7-year-old seasons – takes riding lessons on Diamond Steal, one of five Thoroughbreds she has campaigned under her Voodoomon Racing banner. Two of the others are active: Spanish Ambassador, an 8-year-old mare who won an allowance/optional claiming sprint at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 13, and Doimakeyahappy, a 5-year-old gelding who was second here on March 1 in a 1-mile turf allowance. Nye also owns 8-year-old Spanish Comedy (pictured above), who broke her maiden in 2010 at Tampa Bay Downs under jockey Daniel Centeno; the mare resides at her birthplace at the Webster Training Center near Ocala while Nye looks for a stallion to breed her to. Another successful Nye charge was Supah Soup, a now-10-year-old gelding she raced for four seasons, winning six times from 41 starts with eight seconds and eight thirds. Although retired from racing, Supah Soup still is active at Tampa Bay Downs, and within that story resides the essence of Nye as an owner. The gray son of 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup, out of Grade I winner Supah Gem, is a pony horse during the races, under the care of Nye’s close friend Genevieve Londono. “I was fortunate to find a second career for him,” Nye said. “He has a job escorting racehorses out in the afternoons, and I get to see him six or seven months out of the year.” Four years ago, Supah Soup was part of a defining moment in Nye’s involvement as an owner that inspired her to take an active role in racehorse rescue, retirement and aftercare. A member of the board of directors of TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.), Nye speaks out in the latest installment of the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” blog.

I BELIEVE THAT RETIRING THESE HORSES PROPERLY, transitioning them into other careers and supporting the aftercare of these great animals is paramount for the racing industry’s future. I think for a long time, people assumed every Thoroughbred would be fine after they retired. In recent years, we’ve learned that isn’t always the case, and the issue is getting a lot more attention. None of us in the industry – breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys – would have the chance to enjoy this sport if it wasn’t for the horses. I think it falls on the industry as a whole, but specifically the owners, to have a plan.

MAY 28, 2009 SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE MOST HEARTWARMING days of my life, but it was tragic and bittersweet. I had two horses running in a starter allowance at Arlington in Chicago: my 7-year-old gelding Voodoomon, who won six races at Tampa Bay Downs, and Supah Soup. They were both in contention when Voodoomon broke down entering the stretch. Supah Soup won by a head, but Voodoomon’s injuries were so severe, he had to be euthanized. What a crazy twist of life and fate. It was a very emotional, heartbreaking day, but I became a stronger person and it made me more impassioned to love and care for my horses.

MY FIRST RACEHORSE, AFTER I GRADUATED FROM LAW SCHOOL at the University of Florida, was Voodoomon. A good friend, Will Knight, approached me about going into a partnership, and there were 10 of us altogether. I had grown up going to the races with my father and I was in awe of the beauty and grace and power of the horses. Voodoomon was the love of my life, and after we lost him in a claiming race at Monmouth in 2005, I claimed him two years later for $10,000 at Remington Park in Oklahoma; soon thereafter, I would become the sole owner of all of my horses.

SUPAH SOUP IS ANOTHER ONE OF MY HORSES I guess I have to admit I couldn’t let go. (Trainer) Dale Bennett is always looking to improve his stable, and at the start of Supah Soup’s 5-year-old year in 2009, Dale claimed him for $5,000. I guess he heard through the grapevine how disappointed I was to lose him, because he agreed to sell him back to me at no profit, provided he could continue to train him. That was fine with me. I have a ton of respect for Dale and Denise, his wife. They are knowledgeable horse people who care deeply about the aftercare of their horses.

IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO COME TO GRIPS WITH LOSING Voodoomon. I’m still not sure I’m over it. To honor him, I changed the name of my stable to Voodoomon Racing, and I began sponsoring a memorial race named for him every year at Arlington. I also vowed that every year, I would rescue a racehorse off the track that wasn’t in the best hands or getting the best care and needed to be retired, or one that was being over-raced. And for the past five years, I’ve taken a horse I never owned off the track and retired it to give it a chance to be retrained. I also donate to the rescue and retirement organizations affiliated with the tracks I race at. This, to me, is all part of Voodoomon’s legacy.

ONE EXAMPLE OF A HORSE I HELPED RESCUE IS CURRAGH MON, a son of Maria’s Mon who broke his maiden as a 3-year-old at Tampa Bay Downs. He raced three times at Fonner Park in Nebraska last year, and shortly after that, his former owners contacted me because they had lost track of his whereabouts. I must have made 100 phone calls, but with the help of other concerned horsemen, we were able to locate him. I agreed to pay $2,500 for him and foot the expenses to bring him back to Florida. Summer Thurber at the TROT foster facility in Myakka City did a tremendous job transitioning him and teaching him a new discipline, and he has a “forever” home now in Christmas, Fla.

TAMPA BAY DOWNS IS MY HOME TRACK WHERE I RACE my horses half the year, and being on the board of TROT helps me bring my philosophy to the group while working to get the support of other horsemen. The goal is to facilitate helping as many horses as we can when their racing days are over. As an industry, we have to make sure there is life after racing. I understand how people can get in over their heads; it’s expensive to care for horses, and it’s not like finding a home for dogs. But I’m not going to discard any horse because it is no longer racing. They are living beings, and as their owner I have signed on to be responsible for their welfare.

I WOULD LOVE TO HAVE A FEW MORE HORSES, BUT right now I know I can only manage the ones I have. I will never own more horses than I can afford to take care of after their racing careers. Even if you give a horse away, you have to maintain a watchful eye because things can go awry and the new owner may find they cannot afford to keep it. I want them all to have fabulous lives when they leave the track. Diamond Steal, my riding horse, got very sick toward the end of his career with pneumonia, but I wanted to save him and sent him to the University of Florida equine hospital and he recovered. I’ve been riding him once or twice a week for the past year, and it’s been a wonderful learning experience for both of us.

ONE OF TROT’S GOALS IS TO GET THE LOCAL HBPA (Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association) to support us and help fund our aftercare efforts. If there are horses in need and we can’t take them, we try to find them another home through other retirement and rescue programs. We do a lot of work with Florida TRAC (Thoroughbred Retirement & Adoptive Care), the program that is affiliated with Gulfstream Park and Calder. If TROT is full and we see a horse that has raced in south Florida that needs help, we can call them. Galloping Out, the retirement program in Illinois, does an excellent job. I think all the rescue and retirement programs need to work together, and I think horsemen everywhere need to do whatever they can to show support.

THERE IS NO QUESTION IN MY MIND OUR INDUSTRY NEEDS to improve its public image. A lot of people have misconceptions about how much the majority of owners love and care for their horses, but without viable aftercare and retraining toward second careers, racing runs the risk of turning people away. Too many people look at racehorses as a commodity, and they don’t really care about their welfare once they don’t have the potential to make them money. It is one of the worst things I can imagine – a horse that has earned its owner hundreds of thousands ending up in a bad place.

I’M PROUD OF BEING A FEMALE IN THIS INDUSTRY, proud of being a sole owner and proud of the relationship I have with my trainer, my groom, my hot walker and my exercise rider. It’s a family, and we all work together to be successful. Jim McMullen has been my primary trainer since 2008, and I have had a ton of success with him. We share similar beliefs – the welfare of the horse is always No. 1, even after they are done racing; their happiness and health comes first; and the sport needs to take steps toward becoming medication-free. Jim has a lot of patience and kindness, and he will board horses himself if they need a temporary home when their racing careers are over. Our philosophies mesh, and my horses are doing well because of the care he gives them.

ARLINGTON PARK HAS BEEN VERY SUPPORTIVE OF THE RACE to honor Voodoomon, and I fly to Chicago for it every year. Last year they suggested I enter one of my horses, so we put Doimakeyahappy in the race. He won by a couple of lengths, and it was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in racing. In the winner’s circle, I felt Voodoomon’s spirit shining down on us, and it gave me even more strength to pursue this path. My next short-term goal is to win my first stakes race.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Jack Van Berg, Trainer

Tampa Bay Downs is proud to welcome Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who on Sunday on the first floor of the grandstand will sign copies of JACK: From Grit to Glory, A Lifetime of Mentoring, Dedication and Perseverance – The True Story of Jack Van Berg, an American Horse Racing Legend, by Chris Kotulak. As opinionated and feisty as ever, the 77-year-old Van Berg bristles at the mention of the mega-stables run by such leading trainers as Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, who seem to have horses at just about every major racetrack in the country. “I did that before any of those guys came around – even before (D. Wayne) Lukas,” Van Berg points out. “Back in the 1970s, I had horses at six different tracks. I had assistants everywhere, but they had a rule trainers had to be at the track to saddle a horse every third day or they wouldn’t let you run. So I was flying between Detroit, Chicago, New York, Maryland, Monmouth and Philadelphia. Sometimes, I would get to a track at midnight and check my horses.” Along the way, Van Berg won more races and influenced more racetrackers than just about anyone in Thoroughbred history. Still active with a small string at Oaklawn Park, he is best known for training Alysheba, who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs and was subsequently named Horse of the Year. Van Berg was the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he sent out Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington in 1987, and his 6,417 career victories trail only Dale Baird, Asmussen, Jerry Hollendorfer and King Leatherbury. More impressive, perhaps, is the lengthy list of trainers who apprenticed under Van Berg, including Hall of Famer William Mott, Frank Brothers, Wayne Catalano and Kellyn Gorder. Van Berg won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer in 1984 and led the nation in earnings in 1976, the same year he set a record for most wins in a year by a single trainer with 496. He won his first classic race with Gate Dancer, who set a track record in the 1984 Preakness and went on to finish third and second in consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classics. His Strodes Creek was second in the 1994 Kentucky Derby and third in the Belmont. Van Berg, who will serve as the auctioneer during Monday’s “Hearts Reaching Out” dinner to benefit the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Bay Downs Division, took time to share some thoughts about his remarkable life and career for the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” profile series before traveling to Oldsmar.

THE NEBRASKA NATIVE STILL FEELS THE INFLUENCE OF HIS FATHER Marion Van Berg, himself a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame who died in 1971. The elder Van Berg established the Van Berg Sales Pavilion in Columbus, Neb., in the heart of the Depression, and from those humble origins sprang a dynastic Thoroughbred family legacy. “Every morning when I wake up, I thank the good Lord for my dad teaching me his work ethic and how to train horses,” Van Berg says. “When I was 16, he put me in a semi-trailer to drive a load of horses from Detroit to Omaha. Talk about an education. If he caught me coming home late, he would make me get up that much earlier the next morning. And he was a perfectionist. If he told you to rub a leg 15 minutes, he meant 15, not 13. I was blessed to come up under him.”

RETIREMENT? THE WORD IS NOT IN VAN BERG’S VOCABULARY. “I’ve worked all my life. My dad worked the heck out of me, from the time I was a little kid. It’s in my system,” he says. “I can’t do what I used to do, but I still ride my horse every day.” Besides, Van Berg has a recurring dream: “I’m going to win another Derby. In this game, you always have that hope, and that keeps you going.” For the immediate future, Van Berg is high on the potential of an unraced 3-year-old son of Roman Ruler in his barn, Roman Pleasure. He might not make it to Louisville, but Van Berg thinks he might see some pretty good horses down the road. “He has more miles under him than most of these other horses have raced, and he’s done everything right so far,” Van Berg says. “We’re about 10 days away from running him.”

VAN BERG EVADES THE QUESTION OF WHETHER DIVINE INTERVENTION played a role in Alysheba’s incredible Kentucky Derby victory, in which he and jockey Chris McCarron sidestepped disaster after clipping heels with Bet Twice in the stretch. “I think (trainer) Willard Proctor probably had the best statement about what happened,” Van Berg says. “He said, ‘Most horses going a mile-and-a-quarter are looking for somewhere to lie down at the eighth pole. This one wants to get up and keep going.’ ” When Alysheba returned to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic the following year in the gloaming on an off-track he wasn’t supposed to like, he retired as racing’s richest horse, with earnings of more than $6.6 million. “If he had kept racing as a 5-year-old, I don’t think anyone would have beaten him. He could do things you couldn’t believe,” Van Berg says.

CHAPTER 37 OF JACK BEGINS, “JACK VAN BERG FREELY ADMITS that he fell far short of being an ideal family man.” He was married twice, for 20 and 13 years, and has five children. “I put the horses in front of everything. You get carried away, and you regret not spending as much time with them as you should have.” But on balance, Van Berg – himself the youngest of nine children of Marion and Viola – knows he provided the best he could for his children and is grateful each found their way in the world.

MARION VAN BERG MADE HIS REPUTATION TURNING CLAIMING HORSES INTO STAKES HORSES, and Jack always took pleasure in devising ways to help his less talented horses reach their potential. “The greatest pleasure for me was taking a horse and improving it,” he says. “Whether he had a problem or there was something that I needed to correct, I always believed any horse I came in contact with should get a chance to race to the best of its ability.” Such a horse was Dave’s Friend, an accomplished stakes winner who had foot issues when Van Berg acquired him in 1982. Among his notable accomplishments, Dave’s Friend won back-to-back runnings of the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn at ages 8 and 9.

WHAT’S AILING THE SPORT OF KINGS? FOR STARTERS, “People making rules who don’t even know what end of the horse to put oats in.” Then, there’s the new breed of trainer who doesn’t understand what their horse is trying to tell them. Van Berg is fond of bragging on all his assistants who have gone on to tremendous success, mostly because he passed along those lessons from the best – his own father. “I’m damn proud of them – none have had bad tests,” he says. “I taught them how to work and how to follow up on things. I was cocky when I was young, but the older I got, the smarter I thought my father was. Today you have young trainers who don’t even see their horses race – they’re up in the box talking and laughing.”

NOT TO SOUND CURMUDGEONLY, BUT VAN BERG THINKS there is more the racetracks can do to regain their dwindling fan base. “Racing was the only game in town for so many years, we forgot to take care of the fans,” he says. “Sports like NASCAR and Professional Bull Riders know how to take care of people and attract families, and that’s what racing needs to do.” Van Berg advocates tracks stepping outside their corporate mentality and doing more to get youngsters interested in Thoroughbred racing with events such as family days and special areas for children to watch and learn.

IF THERE IS ONE RACE VAN BERG WOULD LIKE TO HAVE BACK, it is the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park, when Ferdinand and Bill Shoemaker beat Alysheba and McCarron by a nose in a race that decided the Horse of the Year (Alysheba was voted Champion 3-Year-Old Colt). If there is one race he thinks was taken away, it was the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic, also at Hollywood. Outfitted in a hood to minimize crowd noise, Gate Dancer, with Laffit Pincay, Jr., riding, dueled with winner Wild Again on the inside and Slew o’ Gold in between, in a finish that seemed more like a Wild West show that a horse race. After a lengthy stewards’ inquiry, Gate Dancer was disqualified from second and placed third. “They should have put Gate Dancer up to first,” Van Berg growls. “(Angel) Cordero (on Slew o’ Gold) was trying to put (Pat) Day (on Wild Again) over the fence, and they started bouncing off each other and knocked Gate Dancer’s ass out from under him.” Time to visit YouTube and take another look!

WHEN VAN BERG HANDLES THE AUCTIONEERING DUTIES at Monday’s “Hearts Reaching Out” benefit dinner, it will mark the continuation of a tradition started after he left college and returned home to Nebraska, where he went to work auctioning cattle at the Van Berg Sales Pavilion. About 15 years later, after Marion Van Berg suffered a stroke, Jack was back in Columbus planning to take his wife to dinner when she told him his father wanted to see him. Marion, who by then could no longer speak, pointed to the sales barn, and Jack postponed dinner and auctioned cattle for two hours with his proud father listening. Marion Van Berg passed away two days later.