Until last Saturday's Preakness, Jack Van Berg had never won a classic race in his 32 years of training horses. Van Berg's reputation is that of a "claiming trainer," a title unfairly pinned on him some time ago by the racing establishment—unfair because his record was and is tremendous. Van Berg, 47, has trained more winners (some 4,200) than any other man in history, and seven times he has led the country in races won. In 1976 he was tops not only in winners saddled but also in purses earned; still, he didn't get an Eclipse Award. The Eclipse isn't given to a "claiming trainer." That's why Van Berg was so elated when his colt Gate Dancer went under the finish line at Pimlico in record time to win the 109th Preakness. "I'd heard that statement about me being only a claiming trainer so many times I was actually starting to believe it myself," he said. "I hope that goes out the window now."
Gate Dancer, at 9-2 the third choice behind Kentucky Derby winner Swale (4-5) and Taylor's Special (7-2), was perfectly ridden by Angel Cordero Jr., who carefully steered his colt around a tiring Fight Over in the stretch and then held off the closing charge of Play On to give Van Berg's colt his first stakes win. Gate Dancer hasn't been an easy horse to train, but Van Berg's skill and patience has finally paid off. "Some people were starting to laugh at Gate Dancer," Van Berg said. "He was being called a crazy horse because he did strange things, and when he went out on the track he had so much equipment on him he looked like he was leading the Easter Parade. But we kept experimenting and finally got things figured out. If you look back at his Kentucky Derby you'll see he ran one hell of a race."
At Churchill Downs, Gate Dancer had drawn the worst post position, No. 20, the outside stall. The last horse to enter the gate, he was startled when it suddenly popped open, and for an instant it looked as if he would either topple over or pitch jockey Eddie Delahoussaye to the ground. Gate Dancer was nearly 24 lengths behind at one point, and though he closed to finish within 5½ lengths of Swale, he was dropped from fourth place to fifth for lugging in and interfering with Fali Time—the first disqualification in the 110-year history of the Derby. "That's been one of his problems," Van Berg says. "He likes to lean on other horses."
But Gate Dancer had potential. Entering the Preakness, he had started in 10 races and had been out of the money only once. Yet he couldn't seem to get his act together. "He probably should've won the San Felipe at Santa Anita, but he lugged in," says Van Berg. "He got in trouble in the Arkansas Derby and got nosed out of second money. Then the gate problem came up in the Kentucky Derby. But I've always really liked this colt. He showed in the Preakness what kind of talent he has."
Gate Dancer, who was bought as a yearling for $62,500 by Ken Opstein, a Sioux City, Iowa insurance executive, had won $200,825 before the Preakness, and he picked up another $243,600 by finally learning to run in a straight line. As he headed for the starting gate, the colt was adorned in purple earmuffs, shadow roll and blinkers—to keep his mind on his business—and was ridden for the first time by Cordero, the sixth jockey he has had. The controversial Cordero, some reasoned, was the right rider for the "crazy horse." Van Berg added a plastic burr to Gate Dancer's bit so that Cordero would have more control over him.
The Pimlico track was rock-hard and playing far too fast, and it seemed that every horse came up to the Preakness with brilliant workouts, Swale included. Trainer Woody Stephens felt he had an excellent chance to win the race and bring off the Triple Crown, but this has been a roller-coaster year for him, and the Preakness was a downhill slide. Swale broke alertly and seemed in perfect position as the field spun into the clubhouse turn. Fight Over, as expected, had accelerated to the lead, but Laffit Pincay Jr., Swale's rider, sensed that something was wrong midway into the first turn. "He didn't seem like Swale," Pincay said later. "He couldn't get hold of the racetrack."
Swale finished seventh, though he was beaten only seven lengths, the first time in 13 starts that he wasn't in the money. "In racing you lose a hell of a lot more than you win," said Stephens afterward. "I'm not going to go back to my hotel and shoot myself. The horse just didn't handle the track." Instead, Woody went back to his hotel, took a small bottle of champagne up to his room and began working on the future.
Fight Over had blistering fractions: 22[2/5] for the first quarter; 1:09[1/5] for three-quarters and the mile in 1:34[2/5]. But Cordero found room for Gate Dancer along the rail down the backstretch, and at the far turn was only two lengths behind the leader. At the head of the stretch, as Fight Over tired, Gate Dancer moved up on the outside, took charge and led the way to the wire. Play On, trained up to the race brilliantly by Billy Turner, finished an excellent second, 1½ lengths behind, in only his fifth start. Fight Over held on for third. The time for the 1[3/16]-mile race was 1:53⅗ two ticks faster than Canonero 2nd's track record, set in the 1971 Preakness.
After Gate Dancer crossed the finish line, there was wild jubilation among his backers. Van Berg, standing in the aisle of a box occupied by his wife, Helen, and Opstein, cheered mightily. Then Opstein, in an exuberant attempt to hug his trainer, lunged at Van Berg and knocked Helen Van Berg over. A short time later they all trooped to the winner's circle to watch as Opstein's green and black colors were painted on the weather vane atop the infield cupola. "Please paint the jockey a little darker," Cordero hollered to the painter.
Gate Dancer is a very well-bred horse (by Sovereign Dancer from Sun Gate by Bull Lea) who has both speed and stamina, but he ran on Lasix in the Preakness, a medication not allowed in New York. That alone will probably bring out a gateful of horses for the Belmont on June 9.
The morning after the Preakness, Van Berg went to his barn early, before hopping a plane for New Orleans. No trainer travels as much as Van Berg, who has some 200 horses ready to run. "Let's see," he said, "there are 40 at Ak-Sar-Ben, 40 at Hollywood Park, 38 at Louisiana Downs, 36 at Churchill Downs. Then there are more at my farm not far from Churchill Downs. I try as best I can to keep up with all my horses."
And now he has the winner of a Triple Crown race in his barn. "It was satisfying as hell," Van Berg said on Sunday morning. "But I can't think about it for too long. I've got an awful lot of work ahead of me, a lot of places to get to."
The fight was over for Fight Over by the top of the stretch, and Gate Dancer swung by the tiring gray on his way to a 1½-length victory.
Cordero was an angel this time around.
After years of hard work, Van Berg is more than just a "claiming trainer."