The Inside Rail

It was 2001, my first spring off the steeplechase circuit and I had gotten to the Derby. Getting to the Derby and enjoying the Derby are two different things.

My friend, Tony Reinstedler, said he had a place for me to stay. He did – in a tent in his backyard off Baxter Street. No problem, we weren’t sleeping much.

On race day, traffic backed up for miles down the interstate. Fifty bucks to park, wedged between a grill and a basketball hoop on the wrong side of town. Press pass got me in the gate and that’s it. Wedged, crammed and sardined into Churchill Downs, the place was heaving, the heat was stifling. Cordoned off like a crime scene, I could see my friends in the clubhouse, I just couldn’t get to my friends. Horse? I hadn’t seen a horse all day.

Down 50, worrying about my car, unable to get near a horse, shut out twice while standing in betting lines that wrapped around poles and down steps, I cursed, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving.’

Then I heard my mom’s voice in my head, “Sean, have you eaten?”

Thinking about it, all I had consumed that morning were two cups of gas-station coffee. My stomach rumbled, my head spun, my mood plummeted.

I began to look for food, like a stray dog in a back alley, I scavenged. I found a hot dog stand, way down the grandstand, closer to the streets than the seats and got in line. I ordered a chicken sandwich and a bottle of water. It cost $28. I cursed again.

With a cold slab of chicken in between two halves of a stale bun, I found the fixing station and drenched it in mustard, relish, salt, pepper, then looked for a place to eat it, thinking, ‘Five minutes and I’m out of here.’ There were certainly no seats, no standing tables, no nook of peace, I meandered to a sliver of empty wall and parallel-parked myself between a trashcan and the wall, maneuvering my right elbow on the side of the trashcan like a mooring in a storm. I chomped into the sandwich, nothing ever tasted so good. Halfway through the first bite I looked up and over. A big house of a man, drenched in sweat, gnawed at a chicken sandwich.

He looked at me, chewed, nodded like John Wayne in True Grit.

I stuttered, swallowed and stammered out four words.

“Hello, Mr. Van Berg.”

Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg smiled, his left elbow never left the trashcan.

“I guess you had a better lunch and a better spot when Alysheba won the Derby…?” I said.

Van Berg smiled again.

“Same sandwich. Same trashcan.”

I have loved the Kentucky Derby ever since.

Monarchos won that year, upsetting Point Given and 15 others, he never won another race. War Emblem wired them the following year, purchased from a pauper by a prince before the race, that was dull. Funny Cide was my kind of horse, if I wasn’t so enamored with Empire Maker. Smarty Jones won one for my home state of Pennsylvania, I had gone home to see about a girl, whoops. A year later, Giacomo won, yes, Giacomo won the Kentucky Derby.

In 2006, Barbaro dominated and then was gone, achingly gone. Street Sense began the Calvin Borel odyssey. Big Brown was a good horse but there wasn’t any feel good in his story as the ill-fated Eight Belles writhed in the dirt, the sport was rocked to its core.

A year later New Mexico-shipper Mine That Bird streaked through on the rail, everybody missed him, even racecaller Tom Durkin. Super Saver gave Pletcher his first, Borel his third. Animal Kingdom cemented Graham Motion’s burgeoning career. Californian I’ll Have Another ran down Bodemeister. Orb won one in the rain, I trembled knowing the tickets in my pocket. Two years ago, California Chrome came along, the sport celebrated an unlikely hero, he had it all, ability, pluck and a band of dreamers.

And last year, American Pharoah hammered a pillar into a foundation that had sagged like a long-ago mansion. I stood on the racetrack interviewing assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes as jockey Victor Espinoza waved and the impending Triple Crown winner paraded past an adoring crowd. It felt a long way from sharing a chicken sandwich and a trashcan with Jack Van Berg.

• Originally pubished in the Irish Field. Rest in peace, Jack Van Berg, thanks for the memories.