FRANKLIN, Ky. (Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017) — Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg can add onto his best season in years in Kentucky Downs' rescheduled $350,000 Fasig-Tipton Turf Showcase Juvenile, in which he’s running Northern Trail and Make Noise.
The seven-furlong Fasig-Tipton Juvenile is part of the stakes quartet headling the 10-race opening card moved from Saturday to Wednesday after six inches of rain hit the region Thursday and Friday. Also on the card are the $350,000 Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies, $400,000 Tourist Mile and $150,000 One Dreamer.
The all-grass racing program also marks the debut of the Jockey7 wager spanning races four through 10, with handicappers betting which jockeys’ scheduled mounts will fare best based on a points system. The Jockey7 is considered the 11th race for totalizator purposes, but wagering closes before the fourth race, with win, place, show, exacta and trifecta betting.
The Jockey7 has 14 betting interests, comprised of 13 individual jockey’s scheduled mounts and a mutuel field the covers all other horses. The field will be set Tuesday morning after scratch time and provided in a program insert and at kentuckydowns.com. Learn more about the Jockey7.
Northern Trail, with Channing Hill up for owner Jerry Caroom, nearly pulled off the upset at 81-1 in the $75,000 Ellis Park Juvenile before being passed late by the highly regarded Dak Attack. Kay Stillman’s Make Noise finished fifth in the same race after setting a stern pace and will be back in the Fasig-Tipton Juvenile’s capacity field of 12, with another four horses on the also-eligible list needing defections to run.
Van Berg — best known for training 1987 Kentucky Derby winner and ’88 Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Alysheba, as well as 1984 Preakness winner Gate Dancer — has busted past the $1 million mark in purse earnings for the first time since 2000. His 36 victories in 2017 are his most since 1998. But throughout the 1960s and well into the 1980s, anything under 200 wins was a slow year, with Van Berg setting a since-broken record with 495 victories in 1976 before downsizing and pursuing quality in California.
For a stretch, he was short on both numbers and quality. His last stakes triumph was 2007.
“Now Jack has more horses, and he has more chances,” said long-time assistant Sammy Almaraz, who began with Van Berg in 1978 and was Gate Dancer’s groom. “Before, the guys were saying, ‘Oh, Jack is done.’ I said, ‘He doesn’t have any horses.’ If you have no horses, you have no chance for winners. You see now that he’s got winners. He always says when you’ve got young horses, you have more chances. You have fresh blood.
“This is a good time. When he came back from California, he didn’t have many horses. It’s good now.”
With a blend of talented 2-year-olds as well as claiming horses placed with the intent to win, Van Berg has had a superb Ellis Park meet. With two more horses to run on Monday's closing card at Ellis, Van Berg has captured 12 of 34 starts to be a strong third in the trainer standings, behind only Steve Asmussen's 18 (out of 106 starters) and Brad Cox’s 17 wins (out of 48 starts).
Northern Trail is the 4-1 second choice in the Fasig-Tipton Juvenile behind the Asmussen-trained Saratoga turf maiden winner Snapper Sinclair. Make Noise runs for the first time on grass, but his dam (Three Degrees Mon) has produced a turf winner.
Van Berg doesn’t blame bettors for sending Northern Trail off at 81-1. After all, in his prior two dirt starts, he was a well-beaten fourth in a $50,000 maiden-claiming race and then a well-beaten seventh in a maiden special weight before winning at Ellis on the grass, leading all the way.
“He got tired the first time, and the second time he shin-bucked,” Van Berg said, referring to a common 2-year-old ailment of tender shins. “Plus I ran him back too quick from his first start. By his past performances on the dirt and winning on the grass and then coming back on the dirt, I can see why people would shy away from him.
“And I think he would have won the race if he had sat back and waited and let the other horse (Make Noise) stay up there.”
Hill, who won the grass maiden race on the colt, returns aboard Northern Trail, with Jon Court back on Make Noise,
Almaraz has seen his boss at the height of his career as well as the years of struggling with bad horses and financially-unfortunate forays into breeding and training-center operations. Now, loyal clients such as Stillman and Caroom have stepped up to buy more young horses at the sale, where Van Berg’s eye remains sharp for a bargain.
Northern Trail was purchased for $16,000 and Make Noise $22,000 at Keeneland’s September yearling sale. The winner’s purse Wednesday could be in the range of 10 times, or more, what the owner paid. But those were pricey acquisitions compared with the Van Berg-trained My Peeps, who needs a scratch to run in the Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies. Owned by Almaraz, she cost $1,500 — scarcely a bar tab for some at Keeneland’s sales.
Van Berg, now 81, last was in the Kentucky Derby in 1994, when he finished third with long shot Blumin Affair. Could he be back in the 2018 Kentucky Derby?
“Well, Jack is always dreaming when he gets a baby in,” Almaraz said.