The Van Berg name is, perhaps, the most famous surname from Nebraska.
For some Columbus residents who can remember back to the days of Aksarben race track in Omaha, the name is alive and kicking. But Nebraska's premier home of thoroughbred racing has been closed for 24 years. For many, Van Berg is a name most likely associated with the golf course out at Pawnee Park. The horse icon on the course sign may only be slightly meaningful.
Those who can rattle off the Van Berg accomplishments, those who believe it only has to do with a nine-hole patch of land in the park and everyone in between has the opportunity to learn or get reacquainted with the Van Bergs, and fellow hall of fame owner and trainer John Nerud, on Saturday morning at Center 7 Theatre, 3100 23rd St #21 in Columbus.
Producers Jody Lamp and Melody Dobson will be screening a documentary on Nebraska's role in national horse racing, specifically focusing on three individuals and the first Triple Crown champion, Sir Barton, who spent some of his last year's serving the U.S. Army at Fort Robinson.
Showtime is at 10 a.m. and entry is free thanks to the generous support of the Van Berg family.
"We wanted to contribute to the narrative of helping communities identify their agricultural history and using that history as a means to promote agri-tourism," Lamp said. "We were just finding a lot of these untold and forgotten stories, and the basis of our existence is agriculture."
Lamp is a native Nebraskan and UNL graduate who left Lincoln as an ag reporter/photographer in college and soon began working in the agri-business sector. She set up a public relations and marketing business in Billings when she and her husband moved out to Montana.
There, she began a professional relationship with Dobson when the latter was involved in the 2014 documentary "The Great American Wheat Harvest."
They began working together in 2012 and launched The American Doorstep Project (ADP) in 2015 to, as the website says, "preserve and promote historical places, spaces and events that have shaped our country over the past hundreds of years."
ADP signed a multi-book deal with The History Press in 2016 to produce a series of works on agricultural history. The first, "A History of Nebraska Agriculture: A Life Worth Living," hit shelves two years ago.
"Born to Rein," the documentary showing Saturday morning, is the first film the two have produced on their own as part of ADP.
Lamp said she and Dobson were at a point in their lives, when ADP launched in 2015, to begin preparing for 2026, the Semiquincentennial (250 years) of the United States.
"Born to Rein" is a spin-off, of sorts, on the Nebraska book produced two years ago. Readers were introduced to several historic figures and events including the Grand Island Horse and Mule Market and Marion Van Berg.
Marion, born in Aurora, was the preeminent horse trainer in America in the middle of the 20th century, leading the country in victories 14 times, including 11 years in a row from 1960-1970. His son, Jack, born in Columbus, found horse racing fame in the 1980s with wins in the Kentucky Derby (1987), Preakness Stakes (1984, 1987) and Breeder's Cup (1988). He's still the fourth-winningest trainer of all time with 6,523 victories.
Marion was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1970 and passed away in 1971. Jack earned his place in the hall in 1985 and passed away in 2017.
Sir Barton, the first winner of what is now known as The Triple Crown, was discovered by Lamp to have had a colt of his lineage purchased at a livestock sale in Billings in 1946. Lamp was researching Barton on her "own time and dime" and learned of his story that included racing championships, more than a decade as a stud in Virginia, a stint in a program designed to provide horses to the U.S. Cavalry then eventual retirement to Montana.
Nerud, a native of Minatare, is a fellow hall of fame trainer and owner who became a founding member of The Breeder's Cup, considered by many the most prestigious horse racing weekend in the world.
"We had to put some characters in place, and the characters we put a spotlight on are Marion and Jack Van Berg and John Nerud. It's just coincidence that they're all from Nebraska but a very nice coincidence to tell the story," Lamp said. "When you look at the national hall of fame trainers, you'd find it hard to argue that these guys were not the most revered in the sport within the last 50, 60 years.
"Even though they're all from Nebraska, which makes it nice for a documentary film, they all stand on their own."
Dobson believes that stories such as the ones presented in "Born to Rein" are important to preserve in order for people to understand who and what they are.
She said the subject matter is perfect for audiences and will hold people's attention because it's a story that hasn't been told thoroughly.
When local narratives and storytelling provide only a partial picture on the national impact of persons or events, she said it falls under the "mantra" of ADP to preserve that piece of American history.
"I think people are going to walk away with a new understanding of the national impact. I knew of their accomplishments, but what I didn't realize was the national impact they had on the thoroughbred industry overall. It wasn't just their winning and their training, but bringing their true horsemanship to the industry," she said.
"They were strong voices on what it meant to be a trainer and a horseman."
The film took Lamp and Dobson all over the country to such places as Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Saratoga Springs and Long Island, New York.
No matter where they went, or who they talked to, they were welcomed with open arms.
"The topic that we chose was so respected. We created great relationships," Dobson said. "I'm just so honored to bring back to Nebraska a little bit of history that maybe their citizens don't know and provide this for the national narrative."
Nerud is perhaps the figure Lamp is most excited to introduce to Nebraskans. The bloodline Nerud established on his farm in Florida can be traced all the way to the last two Triple Crown winners.
He provided legitimacy to the founding of the Breeder's Cup when creator John R. Gaines was trying to get the event established in the '80s.
And yet, Lamp says, the only place Nebraskans can find any mention of Nerud celebrated publicly is "a little tiny plaque at Fonner Park that has his name on it and it only tells that he's a member of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame."
"But when we got to Churchill Downs and New York, all we had to say was that we were doing a documentary about John Nerud, Marion and Jack Van Berg and people like Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Bill Mott stopped and visited with us," she said. "We didn't have any appointments with any of them. But (the men in the film) were icons and are revered by the industry."
Those interested in attending should look up "Born to Rein" on Facebook, click on the events tab and indicate at the scheduled screening for Saturday that they will be attending. Though the film is free of charge, Lamp and Dobson are attempting to get a headcount and determine if they need to bring the film back to Columbus should there be more interest than available seating.
"What everybody said was their work ethic, their honesty, it was Nebraska work ethic and Nebraska values," Lamp said. "They were true horsemen. They were true advocates for the animal. Those horses had to be taken care of or they weren't going to be in business. That was the one thing that everybody said. They were true horsemen."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.