By Jennie Rees
Jack Van Berg and John Servis don’t know if they have Kentucky Derby horses in Cutacorner and Bird of Trey. But they are looking to get an important indication in Monday’s $500,000, Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
“He’s doing awfully well,” Van Berg said recently of Cutacorner, who in his last start won an Oaklawn allowance at the Southwest’s 1 1/16-mile distance. “I think the farther they go, the better he’ll be.”
Cutacorner ran well enough but didn’t win until his fifth start. In his sixth, he was a rallying and close fourth in Remington Park’s Springboard Mile won by Discreetness, who went on to win Oaklawn’s Smarty Jones and is one of the Southwest’s capacity 14 entrants. Van Berg considered running in the Smarty Jones but instead opted for the Jan. 21 allowance.
“He’s matured and come along quick,” Van Berg said. “Every week he’s better. I think he’s going to make a good one, I really do. We’ll find out in the Southwest how good he can get.”
Van Berg and Servis know what traits it takes to have a Derby horse, both having been in American racing’s most hallowed ground: Churchill Downs’ infield winner’s circle reserved for the first-place finishers of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks. In Alysheba and Smarty Jones, both also trained horses who headed into the Belmont Stakes with the Triple Crown on the line.
Two years after being inducted in racing’s Hall of Fame, Van Berg captured the 1987 Derby with Alysheba, who overcame nearly falling to his knees after runner-up Bet Twice swerved in front of him at the top of the stretch. Alysheba won the Preakness to see his Triple Crown dashed with a fourth in the Belmont Stakes. His championship 3-year-old season ended with a nose defeat to 1986 Derby winner Ferdinand in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The next year Alysheba capped his career by taking the first Breeders’ Cup held at Churchill Downs, retiring as North America’s richest thoroughbred at that time at $6,679,242.
As with Alysheba, Van Berg said one thing working in Cutacorner’s favor is his soundness.
“He’s got a beautiful stride to him. He’s a big, gorgeous horse,” he said of the son of Even the Score. “You’ve got to have one you can train like you need the to train. If you don’t have one that’s sound, you’re playing catchup. I’ve had a lot of horses with a lot of talent, but you have problems with them and you couldn’t get them to peak when you wanted them to. The beauty of Alysheba and (1984 Preakness winner and Arkansas Derby third-place finisher) Gate Dancer is they were ready any time you were ready to dance.”
Servis trained one of the most famous and popular horses ever to race at Oaklawn Park, with the East Coast-based trainer bringing unbeaten speedster Smarty Jones to prepare for the 2004 Triple Crown in Arkansas.
There’s never a bad time to have a Smarty Jones, but for Servis it was the ultimate, with Oaklawn celebrating its 100th year by offering a $5 million bonus if a horse swept the Southwest, Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby. Splashing to victory at Churchill Downs after a massive rainstorm hit Louisville, Smarty Jones’ Kentucky Derby payday of $5,884,800 goes down as a record in the official chart of the race.
The Oaklawn route to Louisville made sense on multiple fronts for Bird of Trey, including that owner-breeders J.R. and Rita Young are from Van Buren, Ark.
Bird of Trey won Parx Racing’s Pennsylvania Nursery for state-breds, then was a well-beaten fourth in Aqueduct’s Grade III Jerome.
“Throw it out,” Servis said. “He was coming off of a huge (handicapping) number, and it was a little close back off such a big number where he could have been sitting on the ‘bounce.’ And the whole race was a mess. The speed was holding and (Kendrick Carmouche) hustled this horse off his feet and now he’s head and head, three abreast, in the middle of horses. He’s a lot better horse than that.
“He’s been a horse who has improved every start, with the exception of the Jerome. He’s got the pedigree to run all day and acts like he will.”
It will be a heck of a story line if Bird of Trey progresses on the Derby trail. He is a son of the long-winded Birdstone, who ran down Smarty Jones to win the Belmont. Birdstone backed that upset up by taking Saratoga’s Travers.
“He’s got a long way to go to get there,” Servis said of the classics. “I guess the last race put some question marks in my head. If he’d jumped up and run really well in the Jerome, then I’d have said, ‘He’s going to be a contender.’ But he’s going to have to prove Monday that he’s going to be. If he doesn’t, we’ll regroup and look for other avenues. But he deserves a shot, and we’re going to give him a shot in this race and see how he fares.”
Smarty Jones remains Servis’ only Kentucky Derby starter. Van Berg’s last Derby starter came in 1994, with Arkansas Derby runner-up Blumin Affair a late-running third in the slop as Go for Gin went wire to wire at Churchill Downs.
“I’m not going to jeopardize a horse’s health to try to win the Kentucky Derby,” Van Berg said. “(But) it would be a great thrill if this horse comes along like I think he will and goes as fast as I think he can.”
Cutacorner is part of a terrific meet enjoyed by Van Berg, who several years ago switched from his long-time California circuit back to the Midwest, where he grew up and came up under his Hall of Fame father, Marion Van Berg, a kingpin in the heartland as an owner and trainer.
Few trainers have experienced the crescendos and precipitous falls like Van Berg, who routinely led the nation in victories and still ranks No. 5 all-time at 6,463 and counting. Jack learned the claiming game well from his father but made the transition to Grade I horses only to, by his own admission, go busted investing in and operating a ranch in California.
“It was a terrible deal. I should have had a ton of money to where I could buy any horse I wanted,” Van Berg said. “When I got done, I didn’t have nothing. It was just one of those things. I didn’t concentrate on going to the sales or anything else. I was busy out there trying to keep that thing saved.”
Now he’s steadily rebuilding, thanks in part to clients such as Kay Stillman, owner of Cutacorner, a $13,000 purchase at the Texas 2-year-old sale.
“I don’t believe that you have to go to the sale and buy a $300,000, $400,000 horse,” Van Berg said. “I think I’ve got a good enough eye for a horse that I can pick ’em out. The other (3-year-old) I’ve got, Giant Trick, I gave $15,000 for him.”
If Cutacorner and Bird of Trey don’t make it to the Kentucky Derby, the two stalwart trainers know it’s still a great thing to have a 3-year-old good enough to make a $500,000 prep race. Especially at Oaklawn.
“You come to Oaklawn, they have sandwiches and food that’s not overpriced,” Van Berg said. “They get big crowds. The people just enjoy everything. It’s just like racing used to be - one of the few places. And they’ve got a great 3-year-old program, probably the best in the country, where you can go step by step.”
“It’s a great place to train,” Servis echoed. “It’s cool in the mornings, which the horses love . And the people, as far as the electricity goes in the area, the only other place I’ve been to like this is Saratoga. The people in town just love horse racing. It’s a short meet, so by the time you swing by here the following year, they’re starved for it. And there’s a camaraderie here between horsemen that I’ve never seen in my life.”