I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had a pretty good life. Loving family. Good health, for the most part. Great jobs. Fun times. Lots of memories. And, meetings and greetings with people that I came to admire and remember for a lifetime. People that most don’t get to ever meet; chat with; and know. People that more people should get to know.
That’s why, on some occasions, I feel compelled to tell my stories of encounters with these kinds of people. I think, or, at the very least, I hope that by doing so that you will gain a deeper understanding of who they truly are as people. I hope that by “story telling” you can appreciate them a bit more.
Two of the people that I got to meet and know along life’s journey were horse trainers LeRoy Jolley and Jack Van Berg. The world lost these two Hall of Fame trainers – and people – just six days apart on Dec. 21 and Dec. 27. Ironically, Van Berg passed in Little Rock, Ark. hospital at the age of 81 after a bout with cancer, and Jolley, who was 79 at the time of his death, was born in Hot Springs, Ark.
The both of them were old school, hard boot trainers. Both were born into the business, really, the sons of horse trainers before them. And, they were raised in the barn – even though they never left the door open for anything. They mucked stalls, and walked “hots.” They groomed the toughest horses in the barn, and learned how to apply a bandage. Hours on end they sat on a water bucket and hosed down a horse’s shins – by hand. When the races were being run, they were feeding and checking stalls.
And, they learned their lessons well. In time, the two of them became two of the best the game has ever witnessed. They were two of the best to ever walk a shedrow, pick a hoof, bandage an ankle, hose a shin, knot a tongue tie, and saddle a Thoroughbred.
Neither one was overly wordy in the mornings. It was their time to work. It was their time to observe, unobstructed or not distracted. It was their time to evaluate and plan, not to be interupted. It was their time to test, grade, experiment, and polish. They were not there to socialize. They were there to succeed.
Sometimes, and on some occasions, their comments could be construed as terse. Sometimes, and on some mornings, their demeanor could be considered aloof. Sometimes, and on some stops by their respective tack rooms, they could duck into a stall and hide in a feed tub better than any sour Thoroughbred could ever consider.
Some would call it being “gruff.” Others, called them tough. Many called them moody, but, then again, that was the nickname of LeRoy’s daddy. He came by it honestly.
I, on the other hand, would call the both of them horse trainers. That’s what they were, from the time they got up in the early morning hours when most of us were just turning over for the first time, until the last light was turned off in the barn at night.
They cared for each of the horses in their respective barns. They knew each and every horse in their respective barns. And, they trained each and every horse placed in their hands.
I got to meet LeRoy Jolley for the first time in the spring of 1980. I was 24 years old, and a young, energetic, brash sportswriter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Jolley was 42, and already an accomplished trainer of Thoroughbred horses.
He won the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 1975 with Foolish Pleasure, who went on to run second in the Preakness and the Belmont. He had run second in the Kentucky Derby in 1976 with Honest Pleasure, at odds of 2-5. He had run second in the Derby, again, in 1979 with General Assembly.
And, of course, in the year of 1975, Jolley was on hand to saddle FoolishPleasure in one of the greatest match races of all time. It turned into one of the saddest racing moments of all time when Foolish Pleasure’s counterpart – the brave filly Ruffian – sustained awful injuries to both front legs during the race, and later had to be euthanized.
To say the least, LeRoy Jolley had seen and done a lot by the time the Derby rolled around in the spring of 1980. And, safer to say, that I had not.
(Genuine Risk / Photo in Blood-Horse)
But that spring, Jolley came to Churchill Downs with a 3-year-old filly by the name of Genuine Risk for owners Bert and Diane Firestone. A lot of people were saying that she may be one of the best 3-year-olds in the world and should run against the boys in the Kentucky Derby. Others, though, reminded Jolley every day of the awful tragedy that befell the great Ruffian when she tried to take on Foolish Pleasure.
The debate roared. And, every day it seemed, a new group of reporters showed up at his barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch to ask the same questions as the group before had done.
One of those reporters just so happened to be me. Maryjean Wall, the Eclipse Award-winning turf writer for the Herald-Leader at the time, refused to go see Jolley. How she got away with that, I don’t really know. Over the years, she pulled a lot of stunts and got away with most of them. But that’s another story for another day. She claimed that Jolley was too mean; too snarly; too abrasive for her taste. (Jolley could have claimed the same things, but, as I wrote, that’s another story for another day.) And, she refused.
So, the job fell to me. And, I gladly accepted. I grew up doing what I was told, especially when it came to work. So, I made it my day’s task to go over to see Mr. Jolley and check on the status of Genuine Risk.
But I decided to take a different tack. Instead of travelling with the heard of other reports in a swarm, I decided to wait around until training hours were done. I waited until all the horses had been bathed, fed, and put up. I waited until things quieted down. I waited until I thought the time was right.
I still remember going up to LeRoy for the first time. He was leaning over the barn’s concrete wall, gazing at nothing in particular on Longfield Drive. The walk from the road up to him seemed like a mile. And, I could tell he was watching me make every stride. To be honest, I was too scared to crap.
When I got to him, I introduced myself and I waited. And, waited. And, waited. Finally, after a long pause, Jolley extended his hand. He said:
“Hello Gene McLean, I’m LeRoy Jolley.”
And, after another long pause, he grinned just a bit. It was like winning a photo finish.
Over the next week, I went to see LeRoy Jolley every day. We chatted. We talked. He gave me insights to why he thought Genuine Risk could win the Kentucky Derby. He gave me insights to horse racing, in general. He gave me his time and his wisdom – for free.
As history would later record, Genuine Risk went on to win that Kentucky Derby – becoming the second filly, at that time, to ever capture the Run for the Roses and the first to do it since the great Regret – who had done it 65 years before. Winning Colors would come along later to make it three fillies in history.
Immediately after the race, I was assigned to cover the Firestones. Still have a picture of me interviewing Diane Firestone inside the winner’s circle. After I was done, I was supposed to run – literally – back up the stairs to the pressbox and give my quotes to Ms. Wall for her Derby story.
But as soon as I was finished, I caught a glimpse of LeRoy Jolley. Slowly, he forced that little, dry sense of humor grin, and he asked: “You going to come by the barn later?”
Nearly jumping out of my skin, I replied, “Yes sir.”
He said, “Good.” (That was a long conversation with LeRoy, mind you.)
As soon as I got through working that evening, I drove over to the barn. It was nearly dark. The only guy in the tack room, save one old security guard with a Barney Fife gun, was LeRoy Jolley. He waved me over and welcomed me in.
We sat and talked for nearly an hour. I will never forget it. LeRoy Jolley was not a man of many words. But he truly meant the ones that he used. And, he used the ones that he chose, very carefully. Training horses came a lot easier – more naturally — to him than conversation and friends, it seemed. But he just made a fan for life.
(Jack Van Berg)
Really, the same can be said for Jack Van Berg. Although I had met him and had many conversations on the backside of Churchill Downs before, it was in the spring of 1987 that I truly got the chance to spend more time chasing the big guy around.He came to Churchill with a big, strapping, beautiful, bay colt by the name of Alysheba. A son of the great Alydar, who had long, deep and considerable roots to the Bluegrass. After all, the colt was bred by Preston Madden at Hamburg Place in Lexington before being sold to Texans Dorothy and Pam Scharbauer as a yearling for $500,000. That was a pretty penny back in 1985.
But going into the Derby, it seemed as if Alysheba was destined to be an under-achiever.
As a 2-year-old, the colt only won once – a maiden race – although he would lose the Hollywood Futurity in a photo and run third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
And, things didn’t get a lot better on the Road to the Kentucky Derby the following spring. He ran third to Tom Gentry’s War and the little known Leo Castelli in the G1 Blue Grass Stakes in his last prep for the Run for the Roses.
It was then that it was discovered that the colt had been running with an entrapped epiglottis. Surgery was performed on his throat to alleviate the problem.
Still, it left the trainer with the gravelly voice to explain the horse with the faulty throat, who had won just a maiden race going into the Derby. It was, to say the least, interesting chatter.One morning leading up to the Derby, Van Berg followed Alysheba to the Churchill Downs’ main track. As was their daily ritual, Alysheba would jog past the clocker’s tower just a few hundred feet and he and his exercise rider would pull up. The colt would then back up to the outer rail and stand. Like a statute. Steady. Stoic. And, beautiful.
(The great Alysheba)
Van Berg, in the tower, was asked: “How long will he stand there?” by someone in the reporter’s throng.
Van Berg, never looking in the direction of the question, answered in his perfect John Wayne voice: “As long as he wants.”
A few of us laughed. Jack Van Berg didn’t. And, so we all stood and watched. It was as if Alysheba knew what he was there to do. From time to time, the colt would look at another horse, as if to say, “I’m going to whip your ass.” And, then he would look at another one making their morning rounds, and it was as if the colt was saying, “And, I’m going to whip your ass.”
Most of the time, though, the colt just stood and stared. At what, we will never know. But Van Berg would stand and stare along with him. Until the colt, on his own, moved forward and jogged off. And, then the game was on.
“He’s ready now,” Van Berg said, finally turning in the general direction of the fore-mentioned questioner.
And, on that first Saturday in May, he was ready. Despite nearly falling deep in the stretch, in one of the most dramatic runs in the history of the Derby, Alysheba caught himself; corrected himself; and then put away Bet Twice to win the Run for the Roses.
When asked about the “recovery,” Van Berg put his words into very simple strokes, as he always did.
“One helluva racehorse,” said Van Berg. “Only a helluva racehorse could do that.”
Alysheba was one helluva racehorse. And, Van Berg was one helluva cornerman for his boxer.
I didn’t get to cover Alysheba’s win in the Preakness Stakes and his fourth place finish to the run-away winner Bet Twice in the Belmont Stakes.
But I did get to cover the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year, when the great Alysheba and the great Ferdinand – winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby – teamed up in one of the greatest races ever.
Ferdinand, trained by Charlie Whittingham and ridden by Willie Shoemaker, nipped Alysheba that day by a nose. But it was just the beginning of their great rivalry. Just four months later, the two met again in the Santa Anita Handicap. And, I was there.
The two hooked up at the quarter pole, if not before. Nose to nose. Ear to ear. Body against body. And, all the way to the wire, it was a head bob. To this day, the most thrilling race I have ever watched in person. At the end, Alysheba had won. By a whisker of his chinny chin chin.
Afterwards, Van Berg looked right into the cameras and growled: “A helluva horse race. Two champions going at it. We won, but that was one helluva horse race.”
A month later, in the San Bernardino Handicap at Santa Anita, the two met for the third time. Again, Alysheba bested his old rival – again. Later, in 1988, Alysheba ended the year with four straight wins – including the dramatic Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
With temperatures dropping and the skies now nearly dark and gloomy, Alysheba emerged one last time to beat Seeking the Gold and capture the Championship.
In typical Jack Van Berg style, he grinned, laughed, joked and looked a lot like Rooster Cogburn, in the old western “True Grit.”
“I told you guys he was one helluva horse,” he said. “And, I know a helluva horse when I see one.”
He did. So did LeRoy Jolley.
We will miss them both. The game will miss them both. They were two helluva guys.