Unsung, but Vital: 'The Johnny Burke Treatment'

Johnny Burke | Landon Antonetti

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Anyone else who had trained this many Grade I winners–there's barely space for their photographs in the barn office–would by now be knocking at the door of the Hall of Fame. But how many even know the name of Johnny Burke? How many know his cheerful, friendly face or the store of experience that draws together so many evocative names, on two legs and four, of his own and past generations?

As an adolescent, Burke was the first person ever to sit on the back of Midnight Court, subsequently winner of the 1978 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Four decades later, he took an unsung role in the success of Mystic Guide (Ghostzapper) in the G1 Dubai World Cup, having welcomed the horse into his care as rehab trainer for Godolphin. In between, Burke has accumulated memories and expertise that makes it a true privilege to intrude on his company, in the apt seclusion of the auxiliary stabling below the Rice Road perimeter of Keeneland racetrack.

“I'm just a small cog in a big wheel,” he protests. “My crew here, when the horses have gone back to the trainers, they're all in here screaming at the TV. That's what I love to see.”

This determined effacement of his own role will not be shared by anyone else in the American branch of Sheikh Mohammed's racing empire. Talk to the trainers, talk to the team at Jonabell, and you'll often hear grateful reference to how Burke has redeemed the potential of priceless animals. Since hiring him in 2006, they have been able to rotate a constant floating population–seldom more than 30, but by now around 2,000 in aggregate–of horses that need to regroup or reset.

“We're very fortunate that we have trainers who catch things early,” Burke says. “But, of course, stuff happens with horses that's unavoidable, and a lot of young horses will have setbacks. With those, there's still a lot going on: they're still growing, still learning. But with all of them, ideally, you want them to graduate back out of this barn so that their progression can continue. They obviously all come here for a reason: maybe a soft tissue, a bit of surgery. And you're never sure if that might have left an impression. So my philosophy would always be, besides physical rehab, that they'll often need to get their confidence back as well. That was always a big thing with my old man: their confidence.”

Ah, yes, the old man. Like so many Irishmen of his generation who have found a niche in the American industry, Burke benefited from a hardboot upbringing with a strong steeplechasing flavor. Indeed, when he lost his father three years ago, the whole sport in his homeland lost a precious connection. Mick Burke had been the last living apprentice of Vincent O'Brien's Clashganniff era. In his youth, he had schooled Cottage Rake.

So far as his son is concerned, however, the key phase of Burke, Sr.'s varied and colorful career was his service as private trainer to Viscount Petersham (later Earl of Harrington) on Richmond Stud in Co Limerick. This was where Burke was raised, and where he was first hoisted onto big, rangy steeplechasers when no more than 12 years old.

Burke will never forget the first piece of work he ever rode.

“Upsides with dad,” he recalls. “No helmets. I would have been about 15. We went into this big stubble field, we weren't really supposed to be in there, and the old man said, 'Right, just get a hold of him and sit quiet.' And we just winged it up that hill. Some buzz. I'd never felt anything like it. After that, it was all I wanted.”

One of the raw young horses Burke helped his father to break had been bought cheaply for the boss from Toss Taaffe: by Twilight Alley out of a mare named Strumpet.

“And actually I was the first person across his back,” Burke says. “We broke him at Richmond and Dad ran him a couple of times. I think he just gave him a run in a maiden hurdle first up, in Down Royal, and might have got 'called in' over that! And then he went to Mallow and won a bumper.”

That earned Midnight Court a place in the Tom Costello nursery. Around that time, however, Petersham decided that he was being driven out of Ireland by taxes, and sold up for Monte Carlo.

“So the question was what should they do with the Twilight Alley horse, over at Tom's?” Burke recalls. “So the old man got in touch with Fred Winter, picked him up at Shannon airport, and they went out to look at the horse. I think the guvnor [i.e. Winter] might even have popped him over a pole. Anyway the deal was done, the horse went over to England as a novice, and won the Gold Cup the next season.”

Burke himself would end up following Midnight Court to Uplands, after first becoming one of many compatriots indebted to Dr. Michael Osborne's course at the Irish National Stud.

“It's funny how many people come from the jump game and end up doing the type of thing we're doing now,” Burke muses. “But I think all of us, in my generation, were at the last cusp of the old school. In those days the guvnor would come round evening stables, and you twisted in your doorways and stood your horses up. It just gave me a good grounding.”

Burke had absorbed his education so well that Osborne asked him back to the National Stud to assist the next intake as a yard foreman. And it proved to be some crop, that year: Niall Brennan, Eoin Harty, James Keogh, Jim FitzGerald, Sam Bradley, Michael O'Hagan.

There had, after all, been another dimension to Burke's education at home: he had worked with the yearlings at Dooneen Stud, an annex of Greenmount (since largely absorbed by Limerick racecourse) where the Stanhope family housed a number of fast stallions.

“Huntercombe, a Derring-Do horse, held the record for a long time at Longchamp,” Burke recalls. “When I was working at Winter's, there was a lad there who used to ride him on the gallops at [Guy] Harwood's. He said he was the only horse he ever had to work wearing goggles! They also had Pitcairn, who sired Ela-Mana-Mou out of Rose Bertin. I remember her when she came to Pampapaul at the Irish National Stud. He'd beaten The Minstrel in the Irish Guineas but was a terribly slow breeder. He bit her, she turned and kicked, and he whipped out of the way so quick that she caught me over the eye. We'd be sent into a different shed with Pampapaul, he might take two or three hours and hold everyone up. But then that Yellow God line was all very quirky.”

That's just one small sample of how Burke's reminiscences are strewn with names that make you want to stop him so that he can take you down the next warren of stories. But we can't keep him all day, so let's fast forward: through a couple of years in Australia, turning down an offer to stay on from C.S. Hayes because he hadn't yet experienced Kentucky; then coming to the Bluegrass in 1983, aged 23, and finding Lexington full of guys he knew from back home.

“Though most of the ones who'd done the [National Stud] course all ended up on farms,” he says. “And all along I had always been the one who wanted to wear a helmet, the one who would end up on the track.”

But not, crucially, the only one. An Australian student, Murray Johnson, had come here to become a trainer, and would one day saddle Perfect Drift (Dynaformer) to run third in the Kentucky Derby.

Johnson is now back in Australia, but Burke called him recently and said, “You know, next March it'll be 40 years since you and I were having a beer one night here in Lexington. And you said, 'Come on, let's go down to Keeneland in the morning and get on some horses.'”

Burke continues the story: “So I bought a helmet and a pair of cowboy boots, and Murray said that we should help out this guy, he needed a couple of riders. It happened to be Carl Nafzger's barn–and I ended up staying with him six and a half years. We banged heads a fair bit, but I hope we both brought something to the table. I was there until '89 and the last two or three years, I had his second string. He'd say, 'This horse needs the Johnny Burke treatment.' And he'd send it over to me to get it right.”

Which is, of course, pretty much the role Burke has today. In between, however, there still remained a fairly long and winding road, not without moments of doubt. Again, we'll have to compress the tale a little.

Having tired of the traveling circuit, met future wife Patricia, and applied for residency, Burke was next indebted to Niall Brennan for introduction to a couple of opportunities. First was a pinhooking venture for Hong Kong clients in Ocala, “back in the days when 11: was still a good move” at the 2-year-old sales. And then Brennan heard that Tony Foyt was looking for an exercise rider back at Keeneland.

That gave Burke a foot back in the Kentucky door, but he was still making do with some part-time work at Gainsborough when a guy he'd met in Ocala rang and said he had a horse too mediocre to remain at Jonathan Sheppard's stable. Would he maybe take it on?

“So Howard Battle gave me this one stall down here on Rice Road,” Burke recalls. “I used to come in and train this horse, go off and do my day's work at Gainsborough, and then come back in at four to feed him.”

Burke still only had one charge, albeit with a few more promised, when next renting 10 boxes at what is now the Kentucky Horse Center. The bank wouldn't loan him the money for his first month's rent, so Patricia paid from her nursing wages. Friends like Robbie Lyons and Padraig Campion stepped up to the plate with clients, and for 15 years or so Burke held his own, exercising most of the horses himself.

“We did okay,” he says. “Didn't run a lot of horses, but I made a living and was able to go home once a year and do a bit of hunting. And I trained a couple of winners for Sheikh Mohammed. Michael Banahan had said to Jimmy Bell, 'These fillies are fairly fit, why don't we send them down to Johnny and see if he can break their maiden and we'll get them bred as well.' So I ended up sending back a few with their win pictures and a 42-day certificate of pregnancy.”

But the fact was that Burke was now well into his mid-forties, there were now twins at home, and he took a couple of bad falls in trackwork.

“Hunting falls were all right, you were full of port!” he says. “But one day up at Paris Pike I got kicked in the sternum and ended up in the ICU. Every now and then I still feel it. That was telling me, there and then, that my time was coming up. And it was shortly afterwards that Jimmy Bell called to say Darley were thinking of a permanent rehab and pre-training yard at Keeneland. Luckily I had the sense to see I was never going to get a chance like this again.”

Ever since, Burke has enjoyed the ideal equilibrium between his employers' unprecedented blend of quality and quantity, on the one hand, and a stable that always permits him an intimate connection with his charges.

“All the trainers have their different ways, but we're all aiming at the same thing,” he says. “Everybody's tied in, and it's pretty fine-tuned now. You know how long it should take you to get back from a certain issue or setback. You're training horses, same as you ever did, but really nice horses. The methods are no different, but there's great satisfaction.”

He gestures to one of the many framed photographs.

“Look up there,” he says. “Music Note (A.P. Indy). What I call one of our first 'charter members.' First group that ever came in here: she'd had minor setback, she was a little bit in limbo. Five Grade Is! Sometimes you have to remind yourself where you are. You don't take anything for granted, by any means. But look, there's Girolamo (A.P. Indy). That's Dickinson (Medaglia d'Oro). This right here is Wedding Toast (Street Sense). She had a few quirks as a 2-year-old, got confidence in herself and turned the corner. There's a mare the boss had out of Uruguay, Cocoa Beach (Chi) (Doneraile Coourt). She and Music Note just had the misfortune of being around the same year as Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}). Maxfield (Street Sense), he had a couple of visits here.

“It's great getting a couple of works into these horses and knowing they're in a good place. Or, sometimes, getting a nice surprise. Every now and then a horse comes in that has never really played his hand. Training horses, it's a bit like playing poker. You give him a bit of a squeeze and he looks at you, and you look at him: yeah, I know where you're at. But generally I just try to get them back in the game. If they're not comfortable, they'll usually tell you. And if they are enjoying themselves, they'll soon tell you that, too.”

It's a world apart from his boyhood, Midnight Court, that stubble field. But it's the same world, too.

“I've dealt with them all,” Burke says. “The black types and the white types! And, to me, they're all going to teach you something. I tell the 'Flying Start' students that it's never cut-and-dried, never black and white. If you don't have that connection, don't get their aura, you're better off doing something else. I love walking round the barn when it's quiet. That's when you might just see something, might suddenly connect. Because it's always about what you do when they're ready–and you're not going to do that, unless you get in touch with them.

“I think Dad was quite proud when I called and told him they'd offered me a spot here. It was him who taught me always to do things right. Do it properly. Of course, it was a different era. But while it may sound corny, I won't ever be satisfied, going home, unless I've put in a day's graft. And, as you get older, you look back and think: you know, it's been a bit of fun.”

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