JONATHAN BURKE’S rapid rise through jump racing’s ranks could not have been more meteoric – the teen sensation riding big race winners after being picked from near-anonymity to ride for Yorkshire-born mining tycoon Alan Potts and his wife Ann.
It was too good to be true. Three heavy falls saw a battered Burke spend half of 2016 on the sidelines watching rivals win on the horses that he had once ridden before becoming surplus to requirements when many of the Potts horses moved across the Irish Sea to Colin Tizzard’s in-demand yard.
Such setbacks would have broken the less resilient. Yet the likable 21-year-old, one of the most naturally gifted horsemen of his generation, has the chance to get his career back on track when he partners Bigbadjohn – favourite for today’s prestigious Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster.
Burke cannot wait. He had his first ever ride on Town Moor yesterday and spoke of a desire to leave his native Ireland and ply his trade in Britain if the right opportunity arises. His friend Adrian Heskin has blossomed since joining the Gloucestershire yard of Tom George this season and Burke is determined to show that his 2016-17 strike rate of two per cent – four wins from 174 rides in Ireland – is indicative of his injury travails. He had accumulated nearly 100 winners over the course of the previous two campaigns.
“It’s been a nightmare year with two back injuries, a broken leg and then losing the Potts job,” a candid Burke told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I have to pick myself up and go again.
“It’s tight in Ireland. If you’re not attached to the top-end Joes, trainers and owners, it’s tough. They’re winning all the big races and now the midweek racing. If it means looking towards England, it’s something I would look at if the right opportunity came up. Adrian said the best thing he ever did was to join Tom George. It has worked out brilliantly for him. I could have ridden an outsider today at Navan or a fancied horse in the big race at Doncaster. It’s a no brainer.”
One opening could be with Bigbadjohn’s trainer Rebecca Curtis who parted company with Jonathan Moore, another promising rider from the Emerald Isle, shortly after they had teamed up to win Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase on Irish Cavalier.
Moore was in the saddle when Bigbadjohn chased home Thistlecrack, the subsequent King George hero, at Newbury – form which gives connections hope that the eight-year-old, owned by Nigel Morris, can win such an illustrious race on just his fourth start over larger obstacles.
“Looking at his form, he’s done everything right, and he looks to have a nice handicap mark,” said Burke. “You would have a little worry about his inexperience but he came from the point-to-point field and Rebecca’s horses are fit and well schooled. The Thistlecrack race was the standout run.”
Burke’s year from hell began 12 months ago when he suffered two compressed vertebrae fractures in a fall at Thurles. Back for Cheltenham and Aintree, he fractured a different vertebra during a schooling session at his father Liam’s yard in County Cork just days after finishing fifth in the Grand National on the Potts-owned mudlark Goonyella who he had previously partnered to 2015 Midlands National glory at Uttoxeter.
After four tortuous months on the sidelines, he was just re-establishing himself as a freelance when he broke his fibula at Fairyhouse. “One injury is bad. To get three in a row and miss six months, it’s tough to take,” says Burke, who has four rides today.
The positives are that he has time on his side – and has a CV that includes Grade One wins on Sizing John at Leopardstown in December 2014, and novice chaser Sizing Granite at Aintree the following April.
And he will always be grateful for Sizing John launching his career. After the Leopardstown triumph, Burke was in the saddle on four subsequent occasions when the horse chased home the mighty two-mile steeplechaser Douvan, red-hot favourite for this year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Sizing John has never lacked courage and the jockey was delighted when his old favourite returned to winning ways this month, albeit with Robbie Power on board.
Burke’s aim is to to get back on the special horses that compete at the top. Today is the start.