For Immediate Release, February 24, 2017
Steve Anderson's Article - Oaklawn Park
If you're a thoroughbred racing enthusiast and have never been to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, you need to add that trip to your bucket list. Especially, if you're a native of Nebraska.
There are Cornhusker fans everywhere down there, and most are associated with 'the horses'.
A recent three-day visit to the Razorback State was responsible for not only
recharging my batteries- so to speak- as another racing season is about to set-sail right here at Fonner Park....but, it also gave me the opportunity to reaquaint myself with a number of horsemen who I've had the pleasure of meeting and observing, in some cases for over 50 years.
It didn't take long to run into the immortal and National Hall of Fame trainer Jack
Van Berg, who won three races during my stay. A visit to the winners circle resulted in an invitation to watch workouts the following morning, and I wasn't about to disappoint.
You can find Jack everyday, sitting in his pickup on the apron in front of the grandstand, right down on the finish line, from 7-to-10:30 a.m.
A constant stream of wellwishers drop by trying to get Mr. Van Berg's attention. He
carries on numerous conversations, between phonecalls, and never misses a moment with what's happening on the track.
Seemingly, he recognizes every horse, his own along with everybody else's, and admits it's the 'claiming game' that separates him from most. His father, Marion, made his living that way, and he has, bulldoggedly, followed suit.
It didn't take long for Jack to get fired up after I showed up.
Wearing a 'Making America Great Again' hat, and supporting a Trump sticker on the back of his vehicle, Mr. Van Berg growled, "When are you people back in Nebraska going to wakeup!"
The 80-year-old-trainer continued, "I mean, you've got to get different politicians back there. The one's you've got are just plain stupid."
"Racing needs (expanded gambling) to survive," warned Van Berg. "Look at Iowa. They were going broke till they put the slots in and the rest is history."
Back in the old Ak-Sar-Ben days, a beautiful facility in Omaha that permanently faded away in 1995, Van Berg admitted to having two conversations with the Nebraska Governor at the time.
"I was told on both occasions that casino gambling would bring trash to our state,"
said Jack. "So, they were stupid then, and they're still stupid. Racing brings money into the state. You've got to start doing things for the people and the farmers.... who have the hay, the grain and the straw."
Oh my, I love that man.
The following day, while sitting in the Carousel Room and watching the races with four of my closest racing buddies, here comes Jack, zooming into the bar area on his motorized cart and pulls up right next to country music singer and owner of Dream Walkin Stable, Toby Keith.
And guess who did most of the talking?
Later, a visit to the paddock resulted in a chance meeting with valet and gallop boy, Cody Ungles, which led to a tour of the jock's room and, ultimately, an invite to the backside the following morning. More on the 38-year-old native of Humphrey, Ne. in future columns, but that led to a tap on the shoulder by trainer Kelly Von Hemel as I was watching the horses come up the 'gap' and making their way onto the main track.
"Man, I miss Grand Island and Fonner Park....one of my favorite places," said the
youngest (52) of the Von Hemel clan. "You know, dad (Don) just turned 82 and you can find him right over there in that gray pickup every morning....right next to Jack."
The 'hits' just kept on coming. As I'm leaving the barn area and turning a corner, directly in front of me is jockey Channing Hill, who, just like Jack Van Berg, is a native of Columbus, Nebraska. Hill was talking to the owner of Uncontested, a three-year-old who was the 6-to-5 favorite in that afternoon's Grade 3 $500,000 Southwest Stakes.
A permanent fixture in big-time racing and now the son-in-law of trainer Wayne Catalano, Hill recognized me immediately, and talked my leg off.
This is Hill's 13th season as a professional race-rider. He's ridden some of the nicest horses in the biggest races the industry has to offer, and yet, all he wanted to talk about was the day he rode his namesake, C. Hill, to a maiden victory for trainer Bill Conyers, seven years ago, at Fonner Park.
"One of the three biggest moments in my career," explained Hill.
I was so stunned by the response that I neglected ask what the other two special moments were.
Now married and the father of a two-year-old, with another child on the way, the 29-year-old jockey hints of returning to Grand Island later this year to ride in the $75,000 Bosselman Pump and Pantry Stakes.
"I really want to win Nebraska's premier race," proclaimed Hill. "Trainer Kellyn Gorder along with (owner) Kevin Hulse think they've got another good one and they've promised me a shot if everything works out."
Oh, by the way....Channing Hill and Uncontested finished sixth that day in the graded stake, but Hill came right back to ride the winner in the nightcap.
Resulting in another checkmark on my bucket list. Life is good!