THE biggest surprise talking to Jonathan Burke about today’s big race over Aintree’s Grand National obstacles is that he is still a teenager – just.
His many successes since becoming retained rider to Ireland’s leading owners Alan and Ann Potts mask the fact that he was still a conditional rider, with just a handful of winners to his name, when plucked from relative obscurity last year to take on such a high-profile role.
Yet the owners knew they were investing in the future – the naturally gifted Burke hails from a family steeped in racing – and victory in today’s Betfred Becher Chase on Goonyella, an emphatic winner of Uttoxeter’s Midlands National in March, will be another vindication of their youth policy.
Nothing is being left to chance with this staying chaser, who is trained by Jim Dreaper and his son Tom, who was a rider in North Yorkshire with, amongst others, Ferdy Murphy before returning to Ireland – grandfather Tom trained the legendary Arkle.
Burke, who turns 20 on December 23, schooled Goonyella over replica Aintree fences on the Curragh under the watchful eye of riding guru Yogi Breisner, who, thanks to the Potts, has been advising and mentoring the young rider in the finer points of horsemanship.
For, ironically, one of the few mishaps in the unassuming jockey’s rise to racing prominence came in the corresponding race 12 months ago when he – and Goonyella – parted company at the very first fence in the National trial.
Even though it was Burke’s first experience of Aintree’s unique test of horse and jockey, he had the maturity to handle the disappointment unlike some of his more experienced weighing room colleagues and rivals.
“It was a mistake on my part,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “He jumped huge and landed a bit steep. It was a novice mistake. I’m a lot more experienced and I know the horse a lot better. I’ve also done a lot of work with Yogi Breisner through my boss Mr Potts, and, hopefully, it will pay off.
“He’s very well regarded in riding and it’s great to be able to learn off someone who is so experienced and respected. It’s just little things, but they do make a difference.
“It also helps that I’m riding good horses in good races. When you’re riding horses that belong in the race they’re running in, it makes your job easier.”
It could be argued that the mistake cost Goonyella a place in the National – he missed the 40-runner cut by one because the handicap was determined before the horse’s Uttoxeter win. That form was further franked when the horse was a valiant second in the Scottish National, despite the ground at Ayr being unsuitably quick.
As such, the likely testing conditions at Aintree have been welcomed by Burke, whose biggest concern is the trip – he says today’s three-and-a-quarter-mile race will be on the short side for a champion who needs to race for “four miles and further” to be seen at his best.
Yet Burke, who made up for the absence of a National ride by winning the Grade One novice chase on Sizing Granite, is still pinching himself that he is in such a privileged position.
His riding career was inspired by the victory of the heavily-gambled Monty’s Pass in 2003 and travelling to the County Cork town of Conna to welcome home the hero of Aintree. “It was only five or so miles from home, but people travelled from everywhere,” he said.
He grew up in awe of horses like 2011 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Sizing Europe. Little did he realise that he would ride the old warrior to a fairytale success at Gowran Park in October last year in his first high-profile ride for the Potts and trainer Henry de Bromhead.
“He was a people’s horse – everyone knows about Sizing Europe. Yet here was me, an 18-year-old, winning on him...”
Burke, who says his home address is “the back of his car” because he’s always on the road schooling or riding horses, was certainly nerveless as Sizing Europe headed to the last.
But he is indebted to the advice that was imparted by close friend Paul Townend who had been entrusted, as a teenager, with rides on the legendary hurdler Hurricane Fly.
“He said ‘Remember you got the job because of your talent and ability so don’t change anything’.”