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‘Sizing’ an Opportunity

It spins and swings all year, but the push and shove for seats on the jockey merry-go-round took an unexpected jolt in early September when it was announced that 19 year-old conditional rider, Jonathan Burke, had been appointed as retained rider to prominent National Hunt owners Alan and Ann Potts.

The appointment caused quite a commotion in Ireland given Burke’s inexperience and the fact that there must have been a shopping list full of other more seasoned riders for the Potts’ to choose from, who would have given their right rein for the chance of landing one of the biggest jobs in Irish racing.

But two months on and 16 winners later, their judgement has been more than vindicated. Although in truth, the racing public shouldn’t really have second guessed Mr Potts. A self-made millionaire who started off with nothing, Potts was going down the mines when he was just 16. His father was head of the union in his area. Then he got a day pass to finish his education. By 22 he was running a mine. At 40 he set up his own company.

Today MMD Group has evolved into a worldwide organisation with offices in every continent throughout the world. Potts obviously speaks the same vernacular as the late great Sir Matt Busby – ‘If they’re good enough, they’re old enough’.

Burke’s elevation was akin to a youngster being signed up by Man Utd and was beyond his wildest dreams.

“It was quite a surprise, he admits. “It definitely wasn’t something I was expecting. Henry approached me one day in Clonmel early in the summer and asked me where I was riding out and if it fitted to come down to his place one day a week, that there was room for a claimer down there. So I started going down there every Monday throughout the summer. I rode one for him; it was a Gigginstown horse that finished second. That was my only ride for Henry before I got the job. I had a ride for Jim Dreaper, who was owned by Mr Potts, a horse called Cavite Beta that finished second for me in Sligo. I gather Mr Potts was pleased with that and I think that’s how it came about, but getting a job like it was something that never entered my mind having only turned professional two or three months previously.”

The Potts have spread their patronage, about 45 horses, between Henry De Bromhead and Jim Dreaper and it’s a measure of the regard in which the Potts’ and their principle trainers hold Burke, that they chose to hand the job to one so inexperienced. The 19 year old only appeared on the racing radar at the Punchestown Festival last April when he steered Very Much So to win the Goffs Land Rover Bumper. Ultimately it was that ride aboard the Willie Mullins trained horse that changed the direction of his young life.

“I had a good time as an amateur but always wanted to turn professional. Dad was of the opinion I should stay amateur for another while but then I had that bumper winner at the Punchestown Festival on the Tuesday and ended up having 12 rides that week which was a lot for an amateur. By the Saturday we all had a bit of a rethink. I approached Ted Walsh and asked him for his view and he felt that I should go for it given I was light and especially on the back of the Punchestown win. I also asked Willie Mullins and Noel Meade, who I was riding out for at the time, and they both thought it was a good move for me and three weeks later I turned professional.”

Burke comes from good stock. The son of well-respected trainer Liam Burke, he was out riding on his dad’s gallop at the age of eight, riding no less than Coolnahilla, who finished fifth in an Irish Grand National. Through hometown friends Paul Townend and Davy Condon, he spent his school holidays furthering his craft at Willie Mullins’ yard in County Carlow. There he marvelled at what stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, could do on a horse.

“I’ve always been a ruby man riding wise. I just love the way he sits so quite on a horse. They jump and travel for him so I’ve always took particular note and watched him closely,” he states.

From admiring him, Burke is now competing against him. His polished performance on Sizing Europe in PWC Champion Chase at Gowran, in beating subsequent JNW Chase victor’ Road To Riches, certainly cemented his new position with the Potts family. The win proved extra special for the young rider as he’s always admired his new employer’s flagbearer.

“I remember growing up watching him winning at Punchestown and all these places. He was the King at Cheltenham and was often everyone’s banker going there and never ever did I think that one day I’d be riding him. And to get such an opportunity at my age is very special. But obviously riding him to win at Gowran was brilliant. I’ve never ridden a horse with such a will to win. He’s very special. And I don’t think that will be his last win either. There’s definitely another big one in him. I felt going to Gowran that whatever he did there, he was going to improve for it and for him to battle and win the way he did is testament to him.

He’s definitely going to improve as the year goes on, fitness wise. He’s all heart, for him to throw in the jump at the last the way he did shows just what a phenomenal horse he is. I see no reason why Cheltenham would be off the agenda. If he’s capable of winning these races here and still competing at the highest level, he’d be fully entitled to go over to Cheltenham and take his chance as he has such a good record there. But I think Henry is going to take it race by race and let’s see what happens.”

When Burke landed the plum job with the Potts Family, a bookmaker offered 6/4 that he’d ride a Cheltenham Festival winner next March. At the time the price looked a little measly but as the National Hunt season kicks into gear, it’s becoming obvious that Burke has every right to dream of a first Festival winner with such a team of horses at his disposal.

“There are a lot of horses to look forward to. The three we have released in maidens and novices. They could go on to be top class and hopefully the three of them do. The ones that have won already have looked smart and have plenty of ability. I really liked Shanahan’s Turn in Punchestown. He was very impressive in his beginners. Sizing John and Sizing Granite were both impressive last Sunday. So there’s three to really look forward to. And of what’s left to come I think Sizing Coldelco could be one to look out for. He was a nice hurdler and similar story to the three who have won over fences, fine big horses going to improve for a fence. Smashing was quite a nice hurdler. He was rated 146 over hurdlers which is quite a high rating and I think he could make into a nice chaser too.”

With an armoury like this, Burke has naturally set himself goals. He’s already shattered the record for the most wins as a Conditional rider and has set a target of having 50 winners this season. He may just have just done what many in racing did two months ago, in underestimating his ability.

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