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Beyond the Game: After hard times, Hall of Fame trainer makes comeback at Oaklawn

Jack Van Berg (KATV Photo)

The season is over at Oaklawn, but one trainer's career is just beginning, more than half a century after it initially started.

Jack Van Berg, 80, first picked up his family's craft in the 1960's. His crowning achievement is a win in the 1987 Kentucky Derby with Alysheba. He was inducted into the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1985.

Since piling up wins at an early age, however, much loss soon followed. On the track, the same California-based trainer that won 496 races in 1976 won only one in 2013. Off the track, he lost millions in real estate deals gone bad. He lost the love of his life. He's currently in his own battle with cancer.

"I got another treatment this morning when I get done with you," Van Berg told KATV early Thursday morning. "I gotta go there at 9:45 and get radiation again.

"I got horses that run this afternoon and horses to claim," he said. "So I've always been able to overcome [those] kind of things."

At his low point in 2013, Van Berg moved from California back to the Midwest, where he was raised. Owner Mike Waters of Muddy Waters Stables invested in him.

"I just got goosebumps, you saying that," Waters said. "How many guys can say Jack Van Berg is your trainer and you're in the derby?"

Their contender, One Dreamy Dude, finished 10th. But a trip to Louisville would have been icing on the cake for this comeback story. This season, Van Berg finished among the top 10 trainers for wins.

"We've been very successful and no matter what happened, I can still train a horse," Van Berg said.

"It's a great thing. It's a great thing."

At 80 years young, Van Berg showed this season that he still has a lot left in the tank.

"Like I tell everybody, I'm still kicking, just not as high as I did before, that's all."

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