Nicholls snaps up Burke for spare Triumph Hurdle mount
Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30
If riding for Willie Mullins at his first Cheltenham Festival wasn't enough of an endorsement of Jonathan Burke's ability, riding for the perennial British title-holder Paul Nicholls at his second should do it.
Burke already had serious bookings at next week's four-day bonanza for his bosses Alan and Ann Potts.
Yesterday, the 20-year-old was schooling Tommy Silver at Nicholls' Ditcheat base, after he received a call from the legendary trainer asking him to ride the four-year-old in the Triumph Hurdle.
Another fine seal of approval for a mild-mannered and likeable youngster who is one of the jumping game's most exciting talents.
"It's a great chance to get," Burke admits after putting Tommy Silver, a 20/1 shot for the Grade One, through its paces.
"I spent time at Paul's during school holidays a few years ago when my father (trainer Liam) used to prepare his point-to-pointers, but I haven't ridden for him.
"Tommy Silver's owners (Potensis) also have Protek Des Flos in the Triumph. Maybe Noel Fehily will ride him, so I am provisionally booked for Tommy Silver.
"Growing up, you dream of riding for trainers like Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, especially at the festivals, so it is a privilege to be involved in some way."
Just 18 years old and still claiming when it was announced in 2014 that he would replace Andrew Lynch as retained rider for the Potts horses, Burke has already plundered two Grade Ones and a Galway Plate success.
At Cheltenham last year, he was third to Douvan aboard Sizing John on his first Festival mount in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Later on day one, he finished second aboard Grand Jesture.
In 2013, Burke had led up the Champion Bumper winner Briar Hill for Mullins, whom he rode McKinley for last year. A breakthrough win is in the saddle is now top of the wish list.
"Whether you are a trainer or a jockey or an owner or whatever, the whole year builds up to Cheltenham," he said. "It's what everyone aims for people take note of a winner at the Festival.
"I am looking forward to it more this time; I got a feel for it last year and am a bit more relaxed this time. I was told last year to treat every race like any other race, and that's what you have to do. You ride the horse in a particular race the way that you think will get you the best performance out of it - it doesn't matter whether it is Thurles or Cheltenham.
"At the same time, when you go out in the Supreme, the hairs on the back of your neck will still stand up. It's a special place."
As well as Tommy Silver, Burke has been booked for Rebecca Curtis's Racing Pulse in Tuesday's finale.
Decent spares are a bonus, but there is little doubt that it is the Potts horses that represent his best chances of victory.
Supasundae (Supreme), Sizing John (Arkle), Smashing (Ryanair Chase) and new recruit New To This Town (Champion Bumper) spearhead his collective.
Burke is lucky not to be missing them all, as he only returned at Naas last Sunday, having suffered two compressed vertebrae fractures in a Thurles fall at the end of January.
On Sunday, he returned to drive the leading Grand National contender Goonyella into second behind the Irish Grand National prospect Venitien De Mai, which, like Goonyella, is owned by the Pottses and trained by Jim Dreaper.
"It was my first injury as a jockey," the Co Cork native says. "I fractured my neck and broke my nose and collarbone before I got a licence, but this was the first time I missed rides.
"It could have happened at a worse time; a week or two later, and I could be on the sidelines - that's the way I look at it.
"I remember Ruby Walsh saying that the mental side of injuries is tougher to deal with than the physical pain and that's bang on. Watching the likes of Smashing winning was tough, but I am in a very fortunate position.
"I am not coming back to scrape around on moderate horses, and that's not something I take for granted. I am grateful for the opportunity that Alan and Ann have given me. I think the best way to repay them now would be with a Cheltenham Festival winner."
And his best prospect of that? "Supasundae probably ticks the most boxes. We know the track and trip suit; he ran well in the Champion Bumper last year, and Henry De Bromhead is brilliant at getting horses ready for Cheltenham. He might be my best chance, closely followed by Smashing.
"He got lost over two miles in the Arkle last year, but he was fourth in the Coral Cup in 2014, so the Ryanair trip will suit him far better."