'Forsa' is with Burke for big run in 'Arkle'
In the 'old days', before domestic pony racing evolved into an established route to becoming a jump jockey, there were traditionally more Irish accents in English weighing rooms than locals.
Partly because pony racing has levelled that particular playing field and partly owing to the opportunities afforded by huge field sizes in Ireland, the flow of Irish jump jockeys crossing the Irish Sea, at one stage nearly one on every ferry, has slowed to a trickle.
Indeed, only three of the current top dozen jockeys this season have their roots in Ireland. But, as he approaches the end of his second season, Johnny Burke - no relation to the John Burke who won the Gold Cup on Royal Frolic and Grand National on Rag Trade - is really beginning to bed in with 37 winners already. And next week there could be better still to come because the pick of his rides at Cheltenham is Glen Forsa, second favourite in the Racing Post Arkle Chase.
Yesterday, Burke, who is based with trainer Charlie Longsdon, was schooling for Paul Nicholls, with whom he and his father Liam have had a long-standing relationship. Indeed, that Burke, 23, is riding at all is due to Clan Des Obeaux's part-owner, Paul Barber. Growing up in Cork, Burke's father trained 100 point-to-pointers, many for Barber before they went into training with Nicholls.
On one visit Barber asked the 12-year-old Burke what he was going to do when he grew up. "Be a jockey," replied Burke, who had always assumed it to be his destiny.
"But you can't possibly be," said Barber, whose straight-talking, such is the way of the world, might not make him an automatic first choice for a job in social services. "You're obese."
Recalling the moment, Burke said: "Initially I had to go and look up what obese meant. I was 10-and-a-half stones and 5ft 6in tall. I was as wide as I was tall, so if it hadn't have been for Paul Barber I'd never have been a jockey. I was 9st 7lb in colours for my first ride."
In some ways he was the classic case of too much, too soon. He was a 5lb conditional, riding mainly for Willie Mullins and Noel Meade when Henry de Bromhead, who had spotted his potential, asked his father if Johnny had a free day to ride out.
He turned up on a Monday, had his first ride for Gigginstown on the Tuesday and a day later De Bromhead told him Alan Potts wanted to retain him. "I thought he was taking the p***," said Burke. "I started off riding a few of them because I was so inexperienced, but the next year I rode them all."
He and subsequent Gold Cup winner Sizing John finished third in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and second in the Arkle, but after two years in the job Burke broke his back. He had just got going again when he did the same thing schooling.
"Mr Potts lost a bit of confidence in me and I lost a bit of confidence in me. In hindsight I was too young and not mentally ready for that job."
In 2016, he came back as a freelance but broke a leg in December and then damaged a shoulder, which kept him out for seven months and, with the rides dried up at home, he had little to lose giving it a shot in England when Longsdon came calling.
"Last year was a bit of a shock, though I'm not complaining," Burke said. "Every track was new. I had to get used to the style of racing.
"Races are much faster run here and the home straights longer - I kept finding myself getting to the front too soon."
He says he would not swap Glen Forsa in the Arkle. People were questioning the horse's speed after he won at Chepstow over three miles and two-and-a-half miles at Kempton, but that was before he blitzed Kalashnikov over two miles at Sandown.
"He handles good, is fine on soft and I've never ridden a novice that jumps like him," said Burke. "Even when he is wrong he feels right. We haven't got to the bottom of him yet." (© Daily Telegraph, London)