BALTIMORE — Mel Stute is probably the most superstitious trainer in California. He has been known to almost fall into manure piles at Santa Anita just to avoid having a black cat cross his path.
Stute, however, has at least a match in Jack Van Berg, who seems to have all the hoodoos covered and accounted for as he sends out Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba to run against eight rivals in the 112th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico today.
For a man who says he's only "slightly superstitious," the 50-year-old Van Berg has revealed almost a superstition a day since he and Alysheba arrived here from Kentucky a week ago. And this may only be a partial list:
--Helen Van Berg, the trainer's wife, made a reservation at a Baltimore hotel, but Van Berg told her that she'd be sleeping alone unless they switched to the same inn where they had stayed in 1984, when he won the Preakness with Gate Dancer.
--Van Berg had it in Kentucky and he's still carrying it here--an eyeglass case that contains two four-leaf clovers and a so-called lucky penny. At his Churchill Downs barn the morning after the Derby, Van Berg dropped the clovers out of the case, then scrambled to retrieve them.
--Traditionally, the Derby winner is bedded down in Stall 40 of the Preakness barn at Pimlico.
It's such a tradition, in fact, that when Gato Del Sol won the Derby but skipped the Preakness in 1982, Pimlico officials didn't assign the stall to another horse, and General Manager Chick Lang, trying to needle Gato's trainer, Eddie Gregson, put a donkey there.
Van Berg rejected Stall 40, asking that Alysheba be given No. 18, where Gate Dancer lived in 1984.
--That lucky penny had to have been heads up when Van Berg found it. He won't consider a wayward copper if it's showing tails.
--Van Berg is using the same Pimlico pony boy who escorted Gate Dancer to the post in the Preakness.
--Today, Van Berg will wear the same clothes--including underwear and socks--that he had on the day of Gate Dancer's win.
"That's not a superstition," joshed trainer Wayne Lukas, who is starting Lookinforthebigone in the Preakness. "That's the only coat Jack's got."
Were he alive, Marion Van Berg would be shaking his head over what he would call his son's nonsense. Marion, who preceded his son into racing's Hall of Fame, largely by winning more claiming races than probably any trainer ever, was 75 when he died of a stroke two days after the Kentucky Derby in 1971.
Marion Van Berg seldom countenanced levity around the track.
"My dad didn't take a back seat to anybody when it came to training horses," said Jack, who began working for him when he was 8, and had his first trainer's license by saying he was 16 a year ahead of time. "And everybody loved him. But he was a tough man. He'd hit you right in the nose if you did something that made him mad."
Marion brought up seven daughters and two sons.
"My sisters and my brother were scared to death of him," Jack said. "When one of 'em wanted to go ice skating, they'd ask me to ask him."
Jack might have been the siblings' spokesman, but he wasn't perfect, either, as far as his father was concerned. Marion didn't drink or smoke and didn't want his kids indulging, either. Jack was already a grown man, and a father himself, but one day at Sportsman's Park near Chicago, he was sneaking a smoke at the barn when he saw Marion coming. He tried to put out the cigarette in his hand, but he wasn't fast enough.
"Oops," the red-faced son said as his father approached.
"Boy," Marion said, "you've waited this long not to use those things. It's no time to start now."
"Yeah," Jack said, hoping that he was at least old enough to be spared another whipping.
Jack Van Berg, who has won about 5,000 races with a vast operation that has divisions in California and several Midwestern tracks, learned the game well from his father. In any Van Berg barn, the emphasis is on legs, and every horse is checked every day, either by the boss or one of his assistants.
"My father used to always say that if you fixed what was underneath, the top would take care of itself," Van Berg said.
There's never been much wrong with Alysheba's underpinnings--a small bump on his left front shin doesn't seem to matter--and the fixing of this horse occurred when he underwent minor throat surgery in California in March.
Since then, he has done nothing but run first, although his Blue Grass win, nine days before the Derby, was rescinded by the Keeneland stewards after a bumping incident in the stretch.
Chris McCarron, who had never ridden Alysheba until he boarded him for the first-place finishes in the Blue Grass and the Derby, takes none of the credit for preventing the son of Alydar from falling in the stretch at Churchill Downs. A wandering Bet Twice, in the lead, caused Alysheba to clip his heels with about 3/16 of a mile to go.