Spotlight no fear for Burke as he sizes up his new role
Teen starlet insists he will 'treat big days just like small meetings' as Ruby backs his temperament
It has been a mesmerising inauguration for Jonathan Burke.
He hasn't been a professional jockey for six months, yet at Clonmel today he will partner Irish racing's most decorated active chaser in a Grade Two for a second time. On the first occasion last month, the ageless Sizing Europe dug deep to overhaul Road To Riches in thrilling style at Gowran Park.
That was a landmark triumph that went a long way towards assuaging fears that a precocious 18-year-old then five-pound claimer wouldn't be equipped to cope with the high-profile assignments that come with the job of being Alan and Ann Potts' retained rider.
Burke has ridden 19 winners since the shock announcement was made in August that he was to replace Andrew Lynch aboard the Potts battalion, taking his tally for the fledgling season to 35. He is 11 shy of losing his claim, having ridden only 10 winners last term.
It's no wonder that Burke's eyes fizz luminously. Fresh-faced with chiselled features, he radiates an infectious lightness of being befitting a teenager with so much to look forward to.
"It's incredible, I do have to pinch myself sometimes," he says. "The Pottses have been among the top four owners in Ireland for a long time, and they buy the classier sort of horse. They employ great trainers in Henry de Bromhead and Jim Dreaper, so it is a privilege to be a part of the team."
Burke speaks assuredly in his soft north Cork accent. He cuts a relaxed figure on a miserable Thurles Thursday, gliding confidently amongst his colleagues. There is always a perceptible order of seniority inside the confines of a jockeys' room, but it seems like he has been there all his life.
He doesn't look out of place, same as he hasn't out on the track ever since he was thrust into the limelight. In recent weeks, he has started to get a taste of the quality that he has at his disposal on some quality novices. Burke's riding has been in keeping with his attitude.
Assertive and strong, he produces a horse well at an obstacle and he rides with all the confidence of youth. At the same time, much of what he does, such as his tendency to go for his stick late, hints at a mature racing brain.
"Winners breed confidence," he says. "After riding one, you could go out on a 20/1 shot, but you ride it with more confidence because you are after riding a winner. I think that's the key. You need to approach every ride as though it's the best horse in the race."
That is an intangible skill that inevitably separates the best from the rest. A jump jockey is ultimately defined by his ability to leave his last ride behind when he throws his leg over the next.
If you go out cocksure, there is no better game to bring you back down to earth. Contrastingly, if you've had a fall and your confidence is low, doubt seeps into your thinking and your actions. Horses invariably sense as much.
Such an even temperament requires immense strength of mind. Few riders possess that unshakeable self-belief, and it is something that only reveals itself when results begin to go awry.
Does Burke have the character to ride through the storm? He clearly has a rare technical ability, but how will he respond when things go wrong on the big days in the glare of spotlight?
There is no greater authority on the subject than Ruby Walsh. "Nothing has gone wrong for Johnny," Walsh agrees when it is put to him that Burke has gone into the gig without any fear.
"There hasn't been a setback, or any bad ones anyway, and until you have had setbacks, you don't understand that fear. And that's the beauty of getting a job at that age.
"It's a big job with lots of pressure, but Johnny has one thing going for him, and that's that he loves what he is doing. It's all he has ever wanted to do - he is living the dream."
Asked how such a greenhorn might respond when the intensity cranks up and old hands like Walsh himself and Davy Russell are eyeballing him in the latter stages of a Grade One, the nine-time champion is unequivocal.
"I'd say that he will relish the challenges," Walsh says of Burke. "When I was growing up, I couldn't wait to ride against AP McCoy, and I'm sure Johnny Burke is the same. He can't wait to go down to the last fence in between me and Russell - that's the dream.
"There are days when he'll get buried or be beaten on a 1/3 shot that might have won, but that's the learning curve. That's what makes the good good - getting over those things.
"For a young man, Johnny has been through plenty in his life. He lost his mother when he was very young, as did Paul Townend. You only have one mother, so for them to come through that as kids and be able to get on with life, that's massive. I'd have huge respect for any fella that can do that. I think whatever racing throws at them after that would be small fry."
It is a sombre but salient observation. Burke's father Liam is a respected Grade One and Galway Plate-winning trainer who also rode.
A doyen of the Cork and Waterford point-to-point scene, he is a straight talker with a searingly sharp wit, traits that might also be ascribed to Walsh's father Ted, to whom the rider attributes so much credit for his success.
It is no surprise, then, to hear Walsh espouse Liam Burke's role in his son's ascent. "Johnny's father is going to be a huge help," he says.
"He isn't the sort of man that will let him wander off into Disneyland. Liam knows a spade is a spade and he will remind Johnny of that, and you need someone like that behind you.
"When you get beat on the 1/3 shot that everyone thinks you should have won on, someone like Dad or Liam Burke will look at it and say, 'no, you didn't do anything wrong. Get over it, get on with it; ride the next horse the same way and you will win'. They are more likely to point out what you did wrong on a winner."
Willie Mullins was among the trainers that Burke had been riding out for as an amateur. The champion trainer supplied him with his biggest win in the unpaid ranks when Very Much So landed the Land Rover Bumper.
That Burke was entrusted with the mount spoke volumes. His father's yard bounces Davy Condon's homeplace, and he spent a lot of time there after his mother died when he was five.
Condon first brought him up to Mullins' as a still slightly portly 11-year-old, and now the lithe teen lives with Townend, who is Condon's first-cousin.
"Paul has been a great help to me," Burke confirms. "My first day in the new job, he told me that I had been employed on the basis of what I was doing, so don't go changing anything.
"That's the best piece of advice I have been given, and it helps that he was in the same position when Ruby was injured and he was riding Hurricane Fly in the top races at 18."
It is a mark of Burke's self-possession that he accepted the Potts job as soon as De Bromhead phoned to offer it to him on their behalf. He laughs that his father didn't fully believe him until he saw it in the public domain, and he says that his father asked him straight out if he felt he would be up to it.
"He was worried initially, but I knew it was the right job for me. I'm aware that there is a mental side to the job, and I've been lucky enough that when I have got falls, I have been able to get on a nice horse straight away afterwards.
"That helps. I suppose I am lucky too that I have been reared around horses, so I know that the only one that matters is the one that you are on."
Of the demanding challenges ahead, he is equally serene.
"You'll have all the hype beforehand," he explains, "but once you get up on their backs, you have a job to do. At Gowran, I wasn't thinking halfway through the race, 'wow, I'm on Sizing Europe, don't fall off'. You just have to go out and do it and enjoy it, because it's a great position to be in. Thankfully I had a willing partner."
In what promises to be an engrossing edition of the Clonmel Oil Chase this afternoon, then, Burke will be pitted against his landlord and confidant Townend, who steps in for the suspended Walsh aboard Champagne Fever. As Walsh suggests, there is a sense that he embraces the prospect.
"It's a great buzz to be riding with lads like that," Burke reaffirms. "I am lucky enough to be doing so week in, week out at the small meetings, but it's important to treat the big days just the same when they come. That's the key."
Born: December 23, 1995
From: Glengoura, Curraglass, Co Cork
Point-to-point record: 5-63
First track win: Trendy Gift (L Burke), Cork, April 9, 2012
First pro win: Golden Kite (A Maguire), Roscommon, June 9, 2014
Seasonal tallies: 1, 3, 10, 35 (to date)
Record for Henry de Bromhead: 9-24 (38pc for a level stake profit of 10.90)
Major wins: Goffs Land Rover Bumper on Very Much So for Willie Mullins at Punchestown in April; PWC Champion Chase on Sizing Europe for De Bromhead at Gowran Park in October
Sizing Europe will formally turn 13 years of age on January 1, making him just six years younger than his new jockey.
In 43 career starts, he has won 22 races, been second 10 times and third on three occasions, finishing out of the frame just seven times in his 42 completed starts.
He has won eight Grade Ones, including an Arkle Trophy and Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, and he was also second in two more Champion Chases.
His career earnings stand at €1.7m.
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