Burke Looking Forward With Fallen Angel After Cancer Fight

Karl Burke with Fallen Angel | Adam Houghton

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The flooded fields that line the approach to Spigot Lodge might suggest differently, but spring has finally arrived in Middleham and that can only mean one thing in these parts.

On Good Friday, as tradition dictates, a handful of the town's racing stables will invite the public in for a look behind the scenes as part of the annual Middleham Open Day, organised by Racing Welfare. Spigot Lodge promises to be the first port of call for many visitors, with trainer Karl Burke expecting to welcome between 200-300 people during the course of the morning.

Hoping to beat the rush, the TDN descends on Spigot Lodge the week before the Middleham Open Day, but already Burke is a man in high demand. Having welcomed David Craig and the Sky Sports Racing cameras to film a feature the previous morning, today our visit clashes with that of Derek 'Tommo' Thompson, the veteran broadcaster and commentator who warmly greets all comers in the now-customary fashion, “Are you well?”

Allowing Tommo first crack at Burke provides the opportunity for a quick tour of the stable yard, giving just a taste of why Spigot Lodge is proving such a popular destination with us media folk as the start of the Flat season proper looms on the horizon. In every corner you look there's a familiar name, from the hard-knocking older sprinter that is Spycatcher (Ire) (Vadamos {Fr}) to the exciting three-year-old Classic contender that is Fallen Angel (GB) (Too Darn Hot {GB}).

Put simply, Burke has never assembled a stronger team of horses, across all departments, than the one in his care right now, certainly on the evidence of last year when he celebrated career-best figures in Britain, with 119 winners and £3,130,725 in total earnings.

“And if you count the European money earnings it was close to £4 million,” Burke points out as he pulls up a stool in the kitchen after bidding farewell to Tommo, ready to reflect on a record-breaking year for the team in 2023 and to look ahead to what 2024 might have in store.

“I never ever thought we'd get to those sorts of figures,” he adds. “I think the only blank month we had last year was March. We didn't have a winner in March, but apart from that we had a great all-weather season and it just followed on through the year.”

Already this year Burke is ahead of where he was at the same stage in 2023, with 12 winners on the board–including a first of the season on turf when Liamarty Dreams (GB) (Oasis Dream {GB}) scored at Doncaster on Sunday–compared to 10 in the first three months of last year.

The big cards are all still to be played, of course, but the omens are certainly good ahead of what promises to be another successful year for the team. Happily, Burke can also look forward to taking a front row seat in the coming months having returned to familiar surroundings in recent days, making his first appearances on a racecourse since last summer.

In a year when Burke's powerful string rose to virtually every challenge thrown at them in 2023, their trainer was forced to watch on from afar as he fought his own battle with illness, out of the public eye as the likes of Fallen Angel did their bit to keep his name in lights.

“Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with cancer just before Royal Ascot last year,” Burke recalls. “I didn't have any symptoms or anything. I had a routine test and they found it, luckily. They were able to get me in and operated on in early-July, so I haven't been racing since then really.

“I was just getting over the operation, which was fairly severe, and then they wanted me to have a course of chemo as a belts-and-braces job. That took me up to Christmas time, so it hasn't been easy, but we've got a great team here and things ticked along nicely.”

When he felt up to it, the day-to-day routine of a trainer's existence was a huge comfort to Burke during his illness, simply being around the animals to which he's devoted over 30 years of his life in this profession.

Burke's soft spot for Fallen Angel is certainly clear for all to see, with the smile coming easily to him when he's asked to pose for a picture with the grey filly who ended the stable's four-year wait for a Group 1 winner when landing the Moyglare Stud S. at the Curragh last September. A second in the space of six weeks then came along when Poptronic (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}) caused a 22/1 upset in the G1 British Champions Fillies & Mares S. at Ascot.

That proved to be Poptronic's swansong for the stable, later being sold for 1.4 million gns at the Tattersalls December Mares' Sale, but Burke need look no further for a flagbearer this year than Fallen Angel, who is quickly having to get used to all the media attention that comes with being one of the best fillies of her generation.

 

 

“There were always high hopes for her and she was a lovely stamp of a filly,” Burke says of Steve Parkin's homebred. “And she's out of a good mare, Agnes Stewart, who was a Group 2 winner. You never can say you're definitely going to win a Group 1, but she just improved all the way through.”

Expressing his belief that Fallen Angel should still be unbeaten, Burke adds, “Even when she got beat at Sandown, Danny [Tudhope, jockey] came in and was kicking himself that he didn't make more use of her because she stays very well. She'd always been quite a strong traveller and he was just trying to teach her by holding on to her a little bit, but I think she probably would have won that day as well if we'd kicked her in the belly a bit earlier.”

Fallen Angel made no mistake on her next two starts, first winning the G3 Sweet Solera S. at Newmarket and then following up in very similar fashion when making the breakthrough at the top level at the Curragh, still appearing full of running at the line as she fought off the speedy Vespertilio (Fr) (Night Of Thunder {Ire}) to win by a length and a quarter.

Sure to be suited by stepping up to a mile, Fallen Angel now has the G1 Qipco 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket on Sunday, May 5, firmly in her sights, attempting to provide her trainer with a first British Classic success in a race that looks a whole lot more winnable following the news of the likely defection of Aidan O'Brien's Opera Singer (Justify)–not that Burke was afraid of going head-to-head with the winter favourite for the race.

“I was looking forward to taking on Opera Singer,” he reveals. “Darnation ran against her on fast ground in France, which Darnation wouldn't want, and we were still upsides her a furlong and a half out. I know where Fallen Angel is with her [Darnation] on fast ground. Darnation is very much a soft-ground filly, so I didn't think for a minute that Opera Singer was unbeatable.

“There will be plenty of horses that pop their heads up above the parapet from now until Guineas day. I'm sure there are a few horses lurking around that are going to show improved form and will be challenging us. My main aim is to get her there in one piece and, hopefully, that's what we'll do.”

Fallen Angel is set for a racecourse gallop at the Craven Meeting which Burke hopes will put her spot on for the 1,000 Guineas, while Darnation (Too Darn Hot {GB}) could also come into the reckoning for that race if conditions fall in her favour. According to her trainer, she isn't one to underestimate, either, in the event that that happens.

“I'm sure that on soft or heavy ground, she's going to be a handful for any horse,” Burke says of the filly who counted the G2 May Hill S. at Doncaster amongst her three wins last season. “A lot of horses just can't manage that ground, but she seems to thrive on it.

“She carried a little niggle all of last season and I think that's one of the reasons why she didn't perform on firmer ground. But she's come through that and she's working nicely. I'm not sure what the plan is–it will be dictated by the ground really. It was in my mind to go for one of the trials if it came up heavy, but there's not a mile trial for fillies without going up to France and I don't really want to do that with her first-time-out.”

 

Darnation | Adam Houghton

 

One exciting three-year-old at Spigot Lodge who has already been in action in 2024 is the 'TDN Rising Star' Night Raider (Ire). In fact, the quick circuit of the stable yard on this particular morning involves only a brief stop at his empty box, the son of Dark Angel (Ire) already having departed ahead of his run at Southwell that evening.

“It's a big day for him,” says Burke, who later follows Night Raider on the 230-mile round trip to Southwell for his first racecourse visit of the year. “I've just seen him on the horsebox and he's roaring away. He's got that little immaturity still about him, so another day out won't do him any harm. Today, whether he wins easily or is in a battle, the idea is to give him a little squeeze and make him go and stretch in that last furlong.”

As it turns out, Night Raider has absolutely no difficulty dismissing a 93-rated rival from the Charlie Hills stable in that novice event, responding quickly when that little squeeze is applied as he powers clear to win by five lengths.

Unbeaten in two starts, by a cumulative margin of 14 lengths, the feeling remains that we've only scratched the surface of Night Raider's potential. He's clearly held in high regard by Burke, too, with the only uncertainty in his mind being about what to do next ahead of a possible tilt at the G1 Qipco 2,000 Guineas on Saturday, May 4.

“We'll make a decision whether we go for a trial or a racecourse gallop,” he sums up. “The trial is more likely to be the seven-furlong conditions race at Newmarket, for horses that haven't run more than twice. I don't want to try him in the Craven over a mile where there could be cut in the ground and it could turn into a slog. And if we wait for Newbury, it's literally two weeks before the Guineas which is getting close.

“We've got decisions to make, but he's a beautiful horse and the Guineas and the start of the season is not the be-all and end-all for him–he's going to get better and better as the season goes on.”

Burke's Southwell trip might have resembled a return to some sort of normality for the trainer, but he's still finding his feet in certain aspects at home, notably when it comes to getting to grips with the latest intake of juveniles in his care.

“There are a few nice horses out there,” he says of the class of 2024. “I was away for a month in the winter, which I've never done before, and obviously before Christmas I wasn't as on it as I usually would be with having the chemo. But I'm recognising the horses now and seeing how they've developed. I'm just catching up with that and I must admit now that, when I see the string, we've got some lovely fillies out there.”

It was the two-year-olds which underpinned Burke's success last season, making up 68 of the yard's 119 winners in Britain, whilst pocketing nearly £1 million in prize-money. This year the team of juveniles won't be quite so numerically strong, according to Burke, but he still expects to have plenty of early runners despite a less-than-ideal preparation, chiefly because of the exceptionally wet weather the whole country has endured in recent weeks and months.

“We won't have quite as many two-year-olds this time around because we've kept a lot of the nice two-year-olds from last year,” Burke explains. “We have 139 boxes here and we're pretty limited above that, so we had to cut back somewhere and it ended up being the two-year-olds. But we seem to have a nice bunch and still good numbers.

“I've been saying to a few people that I felt the three-year-olds and older horses were probably a week or two ahead of where we'd usually be with them, but we're probably a week or two behind with the two-year-olds. We're probably better off having it that way round, because there are loads of races for the two-year-olds and they've got plenty of time.”

Pinatubo (Ire) is a first-season sire expected to waste no time in having two-year-old winners in 2024 and Burke is excited to see what his half-brother to Dramatised (Ire) (Showcasing {GB}) can do having been sent to Spigot Lodge by Parkin. “He looks a lovely colt,” says the trainer. “There's a lot of scope about him–a lot more scope than Dramatised had.”

Burke also puts in a positive word for a filly by Sergei Prokofiev, but it's another Whitsbury Manor Stud resident who is the main subject of his affections, namely Havana Grey (GB), whom he trained to win the G1 Flying Five S. back in 2018.

“It's been unbelievable really,” Burke says of the success Havana Grey has enjoyed at stud, notably with the dual Group 1-winning two-year-old Vandeek (GB), the star of his second crop. “And fair play to Ed Harper from Whitsbury. When we were looking to try and sell him, we had a price in our heads, us and the owners. All the big studs came over to see him and liked him, but they didn't want to pay the price that we had in mind. We stuck to our guns and fair play to Ed. He said, 'I think I'm paying plenty for him, but I want him.'

“His constitution was brilliant,” Burke adds of Havana Grey. “All he did was eat and sleep and he was a very sound, tough horse. I think he's passing on that toughness to his progeny.”

As for the current inmates at Spigot Lodge, there is arguably no finer embodiment of toughness than the six-year-old Spycatcher, who did his trainer proud in 2023 when winning the G3 Prix de Ris-Orangis at Deauville before being beaten just a short head when bidding for a first Group 1 success in the Prix Maurice de Gheest at the same venue.

 

Spycatcher | Adam Houghton

 

Spycatcher, who occupies the box that was once home to Burke's multiple Group 1 winner Laurens (Fr) (Siyouni {Fr}), will be back for more in 2024 with the aim of breaking his top-level duck, so too the four-year-olds Flight Plan (GB) (Night Of Thunder {Ire}) and Royal Rhyme (Ire) (Lope De Vega {Ire}), both of whom acquitted themselves well in good company last season.

There's certainly plenty to be excited about if you're planning a visit to Spigot Lodge during the Middleham Open Day, albeit Burke's own enjoyment of the event isn't necessarily what it once was since the introduction of racing on Good Friday.

“We've got three meetings, so we're going to be stretched to the limit,” he explains. “We've had to limit our opening window to two and a half hours, because we just can't do it any other way. We're going to have lads everywhere and horses travelling. You can't be loading horses up when you've got 200-300 people walking around.

“It's unfortunate because it does have a place. It's a good selling point to try and get new blood into the game, but it certainly hasn't made it easier with so much racing on Good Friday.”

It's a message that rings especially true at a time when the fixture list seems to grow year-on-year, despite a general decline in foal crops in Britain, not to mention the increase in the number of horses being bought to race overseas.

It provides an interesting talking point on which to end the chat with Burke, who clearly remains as passionate as ever about a sport which means everything to him and his family, ably assisted at Spigot Lodge by wife Elaine and daughters Kelly and Lucy.

“I think that's a big problem [the loss of horses overseas] and I don't know how you halt that,” he says. “Obviously, prize-money comes into it, but we're so far behind as a country on prize-money compared to a lot of the other major racing nations that we're never going to catch them up.

“Any increase in prize-money will help, but how do you go about persuading people not to sell their horses? I think in a perverse sort of way, while the Middle East programme that's there doesn't really help British racing, there's a case for owners keeping those good middle-distance horses and high-class sprinters and going out in the winter to the Middle East to compete for that prize-money.

“That's probably as good a selling point as any. The likes of Richard Fahey have obviously had great success, so the more that they build their programme, it will probably help to a degree to persuade owners in Britain to keep those horses.”

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