Donn's Articles » Jonathan Burke

Jonathan Burke

Jonathan Burke rode a winner at Clonmel on 13th June, Maya Quest for Michael Fitzsimons in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle, but that is not why it was a significant day for him.

It was his last winner as a 7lb claimer, after that winner his claim was reduced to 5lb but, noteworthy event though that always is in a young rider’s career, it is not why it was a big day.

Clonmel on 13th June was where and when Jonathan Burke met Henry de Bromhead. That’s why.

De Bromhead approached Jonathan’s dad, trainer Liam Burke, and asked him if it would be okay if the young lad came up to Knockeen to ride out. Jonathan had never met Henry de Bromhead before, but they shook hands and agreed that he would go up every Monday. He was already riding out for Willie Mullins and Noel Meade, so it would be great to ride out for another one of the top National Hunt trainers in the country.

Burke’s first ride for de Bromhead was on the Gigginstown House horse Enjoy Responsibly in a chase at Ballinrobe in late August, and they finished second. The following morning, the trainer called him to tell him that owners Alan and Ann Potts were looking for a new jockey, a young lad who could ride, and that they wanted to offer him the role.

“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Burke now. “All these horses, Sizing Europe, all the Sizings, Loosen My Load, Shanahan’s Turn, and all the young horses coming through. Luckily, I had had a good Galway Festival, I think that was important. But I’m sure that Henry and Jim Dreaper (who also trains the Potts’ horses) put in a good word for me. I’m really grateful for that.”

He is grateful for all of it. He is an 18-year-old with his head screwed on tightly and his feet on the ground. He appreciates the enormity of the opportunity with which Alan and Ann Potts have presented him, one of the top jobs in the country, riding for an owner who is a perennial among the top five in the owners’ championship. But Jonathan Burke can ride. He was born to ride.

It’s Jonathan, by the way, not Johnny. He says it almost apologetically, and only when asked. Lots of people call him Johnny, but his name is Jonathan. It’s not dissimilar to when AP McCoy started riding in England in 1994, he told people when he could, as politely as he could, that his name was Anthony, not Tony, yet the Tony thing stuck. And it may be that the synergies between the 20-year-old McCoy then and the 18-year-old Burke now do not end there. Time will tell.

There were horses around at home for as long as Jonathan can remember. His father Liam, a former rider himself, has been training horses since before Jonathan’s memory starts.

Coolnahilla was the first racehorse that he sat on, the horse the same age as his young rider. He remembers Sir Frederick winning the Galway Plate in 2007. It was Jonathan’s pony, Captain Brownie, who went up in the box on the day to keep Sir Frederick company, and he remembers riding his pony around the car park at the racecourse after racing, nobody in any rush home to Mallow.

His mother died when he was five. When you are five, these things can pass you by.

“I remember my mother’s funeral,” he says slowly. “I just thought it was a big party, I didn’t know what was going on. The house was full of racing people, sure I thought it was great. I couldn’t believe that Ted and Ruby Walsh were in our house. I laugh about it now with my sister Amy. She is four years older than me, she was nine at the time and she was obviously very sad. She has been brilliant though. Amy and dad reared me.”

He remembers Thyne Again winning the Baileys Arkle at Leopardstown in 2008 and going on to win the Nas Na Riogh Chase at Naas. He remembers schooling him, fast and sharp over his fences, the thrill of a lifetime as his dad looked on with his heart in his mouth, and he remembers the morning that the horse dropped dead on the gallops.

“He was just after doing a routine canter, nothing too strenuous, and he just suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed. That was a sad day. He was only eight. He was the best horse we ever had.”

Davy Russell rode a lot for Liam Burke then, and Davy Condon and Paul Townend (with whom he now lives) lived close by, so there was always lots of advice around for a young aspiring jockey. It was Davy Condon who took young Jonathan up to Willie Mullins’ one day when he was 11, and he has been going back since.

He loved pony racing, despite the fact that he broke his neck in a fall in a pony race when he was 15. Undeterred, he took out his amateur licence the following year, and started to ride in point-to-points and bumpers.

“The point-to-point scene is great, I have huge admiration for all the riders, for all the people involved, but for some reason I could never get the hang of it.”

His first ride in a point-to-point was on Major Finnegan at Knockanard in February 2013. He was in front and travelling like a winner when he was unseated at the final fence. Two weeks later, he rode Sir Frederick in a point-to-point at Kildorrery, and he was unseated at the third.

On the track, different story. He rode Very Much So to win the Land Rover Bumper at last season’s Punchestown Festival for Willie Mullins, he rode Golden Kite for Adrian Maguire to win the Connacht National at Roscommon last June on his first ride after turning professional, and he rode the Liz Doyle-trained Cacheofgold to win a handicap hurdle at the Galway Festival in July, live on RTE. All the while, his natural talent was gaining traction.

His first ride as Alan and Ann Potts’ rider was on Loosen My Load in a chase at Galway on 10th September, and he won on him. It was great to get off to a winning start: a striker who scores on his first appearance for a new club. Pressure off. Paul Townend told him to just ride like he has always ridden, not to try to change anything. They picked him because of how he rides, there’s no need to change a thing.

He has ridden some really promising young hurdlers and chasers in the last few weeks, like Sizing John and Sizing Granite and A Sizing Network – he had a double at Naas last Sunday and another double at Fairyhouse on Tuesday – and, at the other end of the spectrum, he rode the evergreen Sizing Europe to his fourth victory in the Grade 2 PWC Chase at Gowran Park last month. That was some thrill.

“The reception that Europe got when we came back to the winner’s enclosure was unbelievable.” He deflects the praise to the horse. “I had obviously followed his career very closely, he’s an unbelievable horse, but I never dreamt that I would get to ride him in a race.”

Jonathan Burke has ridden 35 winners this season so far, three and a half times more than he had ever ridden in a full season in the past, which leaves him in third place in the jockeys’ championship. He is a young lad with a refreshing attitude and a blazing talent, and he is only getting going.

© The Sunday Times, 9th November 2014