Two mighty oaks in the world of Thoroughbred racing sadly fell during Christmas week.
To those of us introduced to racing in the mid-1980s, LeRoy Jolley and Jack Van Berg were already near the top of any “Trainers to Know” list. Jolley had won two Kentucky Derbies, including with (at that time) one of only two fillies ever to win the race: Genuine Risk. Van Berg was the world’s all-time winningest trainer and was in the midst of conditioning classic winner and white-hooded wonder Gate Dancer when he reached the Hall of Fame in 1985.
The years 1986-87, when I began intensely following the sport, were prime ones for Jolley and Van Berg. Jolley followed Van Berg into the Hall of Fame in 1987 while simultaneously campaigning Manila, arguably the best U.S.-based grass horse in history, as well as multiple Grade 1 winner Gulch. Concurrently, Van Berg had the horse of his lifetime, Alysheba, who retired in 1988 as the world’s leading money winner with two Triple Crown race wins and the Breeders’ Cup Classic among his major tallies.
Unfortunately, the kind of horsemanship Jolley and Van Berg practiced and succeeded with fell out of favor by the mid-1990s. Never a numbers guy like Van Berg, Jolley’s last champion was 1990 juvenile filly leader Meadow Star and the following year was the last time his stable’s earnings surpassed $1 million.
Van Berg never trained another champion, but recently began enjoying a resurgence before his fatal illness. This season was the first since 2000 when his stable’s earnings eclipsed the $1 million mark.
I never met either man despite countless opportunities over the years, but certainly admired them from afar. My home track of Canterbury Downs opened for business in 1985, and Van Berg (along with future Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith) notably topped the standings in the track’s inaugural season.
Jolley I nearly had the courage to introduce myself to as a boy when he came to Canterbury to saddle a filly in one of the track’s Grade 3 turf events (either the Lady Canterbury or Canterbury Oaks). I discreetly followed Jolley from the paddock to his seat in the grandstand, but ultimately lacked the nerve to ask for an autograph. Just seeing him then, and later, sufficed.
Thanks for the memories, gentlemen.