LIKE all jockeys steeped in horse racing, Jonathan Burke always phones home after every ride to seek some wise counsel.
His daily calls to his father Liam have included a season-starting win at Wetherby on Nightfly, who reappears today at Newbury, to high-profile successes on Glen Forsa – now a leading contender for this month’s Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.
But the evening conversation was even more memorable this week when the 23-year-old was able to congratulate Cork-based Burke senior on saddling Rebel Early to victory at Clonmel.
While father and son compete on separate sides of the Irish Sea their bond is as strong as ever as the jockey establishes himself as one of this country’s top riders.
Just five years of age when his mother Janet succumbed to cancer, he was effectively brought up by his father and older sister Amy.
“I’ve had some nice winners this week – but it was good to be able to congratulate him,” Burke told The Yorkshire Post before competing at Doncaster yesterday.
“I was delighted for him. He works hard. I just don’t remember my mum because I was too young. My sister took over from my mother. Between the two of them they brought me up very well. I was never left wanting for everything. As soon as I could walk I was on a horse and then riding out before school.”
As well as his family making time for Burke to go pony riding or show jumping, he does speak warmly about his childhood and his family’s work ethic. He says he was not forced to become a jockey.
He continues to treat people exactly how he expects to be treated himself and this grounding has served Burke well as his own endeavour is rewarded by successes here under the guidance of, among others, Charlie Longsdon, his main trainer, and agent Chris Broad.
So, too, was the formative experience when plucked from racing obscurity while still a teenager to become the retained rider in Ireland to the late Alan Potts, a Yorkshire-born industrialist, and his wife Ann.
Though the partnership accrued three Grade One successes, including a memorable win on subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing Europe, the pressure of expectation – and injury – weighed heavily on such young shoulders and the alliance did not last. That said, Burke has no regrets. “It was definitely a help and it fast forwarded my career by five years,” he reflected.
It also taught him mental resilience when the number of injuries, all serious setbacks which would have broken lesser men, threatened to eclipse his volume of winners before moving to Britain in the summer of 2017 to team up with the aforementioned Longsdon.
Looking back, 15 winners from 246 rides in 2017-18 looks a modest return and Burke was contemplating a return to Ireland before winning on Longsdon’s Bentelimar at Aintree’s Grand National meeting last year. He credits the experience of the Potts job for giving him the maturity to make a more reasoned and longer-term decision, which is now paying off.
“I’m a lot more settled. It took a year to get to know the tracks and English style of things. I didn’t know where I was going, plugging the sat-nav in and going off,” he said, admitting that he was unprepared for daily racing and the level of fitness required.
But a successful summer last year was followed by Nightfly winning at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day. Though it was not a feature race it was a high-profile Saturday fixture.
Then came the ride on Glen Forsa, who is trained by former footballer Mick Channon. The horse won its steeplechase debut at Chepstow before recording even more impressive wins at Kempton and then Sandown to spark dreams of Arkle glory in 10 days.
“It is also an association that has the potential to take Burke’s career to new heights and can, in part, be traced back to his father’s previous deals with former Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight who works with Channon and Glen Forsa’s owner Tim Radford.
“I’d never met Hen or spoken to her, but she knew my father from buying point-to-point horses and my agent put my name forward,” said Burke, who is already on the 37-winner mark for the season and who runs round every track before racing. “I grew up watching her and Terry Biddlecombe, win three Gold Cups with Best Mate, idolising them.
“Mick is brilliant to ride for. He just says, ‘I’ll leave it to you’. That’s the greatest advice a trainer can give to a jockey. Anything can happen in a race, but it shows they have confidence in you as a rider.
“I went to Chepstow. He was rated 114 in a 16-runner novice handicap chase. We won and he’s kept stepping up. For any jockey he’s the horse you want to take in to the big days. Glen Forsa has helped put my name back in the lights. He’s a quick horse that stays. He has a great way of racing, he’s very forward thinking.
“I didn’t think he was an Arkle horse, but he’s told us he’s a two-miler rather than us telling him...it is great to be going to Cheltenham with a live chance.”
And hopefully, says Burke, rewarding his father who will always be his best friend, mentor and fiercest critic.