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Dublin: 15 °C Tuesday 20 August, 2019
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Back in the saddle after a neck injury, now it's all about Cheltenham for rising Irish star

Cork jockey Jonathan Burke can’t wait to get back to the racetrack.

Jonathan Burke.
Jonathan Burke.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“IT’S GREAT TO be back.”

Rising national hunt star Jonathan Burke can’t stress that enough.

After his four-week absence with a neck injury, and the Cheltenham Festival just over two weeks away, it’s easy to understand the jockey’s animation.

The 20-year-old Corkonian had been sidelined with a compression fracture to his T3 and T4 vertebrae suffered in a fall at Thurles on 28 January.

After a number of restless weeks, that he filled with some commentary work and a holiday overseas, Burke got the all-clear from a specialist on Tuesday. And he was back riding out the following morning.

He spent some time in Dubai with his close friend and former fellow jockey Davy Condon, who was forced to retire from the sport last year due to a spinal injury he suffered in a fall during the Grand National.

As nice as it was to get away, Burke was delighted to get back this week and shake off the rust, even if it did leave him feeling a bit tight on Thursday.

“It was nice, you wouldn’t appreciate how much you’d miss it,” Burke told The42 after riding a few horses for Jim Dreaper.

“I was a bit stiff, which is natural enough. I’m looking to maybe ride in a race at Gowran Park next weekend. I think Henry (de Bromhead) might have something for me.

“That will give me about 10 days to get ready for Cheltenham.”

Extraordinary

Burke has come on to the scene at frightening speed; for his extraordinary efforts he was awarded Horse Racing Ireland’s Outstanding Achievement Award.

The retained rider with the Potts family, Alan and Ann, had an incredible breakthrough season which included winning the tote.com Galway Plate at the Galway Festival on the de Bromhead-trained Shanahan’s Turn.

Burke has to pinch himself at times; he is employed by one of the biggest owners of national hunt horses in the land, who have most of their string with de Bromhead, he regularly gets rides for the likes of Willie Mullins, and he is already widely-regarded as one of the future stars of the sport.

Jonathan Burke celebrates his victory on Shanahan's Turn. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Burke got his first taste of the Cheltenham Festival as a jockey last year, following a number of visits as a stable hand, and he is desperate to get back.

“It was very special (his first Cheltenham Festival). I was lucky enough to have been going to the festival as a stable hand with Willie Mullins before.

“And I was lucky enough to lead up Briar Hill the year he won the Champion Bumper (2013). I suppose that’s kind of where you get your taste for the festival.

Going there as a 19-year-old jockey with a host of outside chances, it was the stuff of dreams really.

The Potts family expect to have a number of horses at the festival including Supasundae, Sizing John, Smashing and Shanahan’s Turn, while Burke also hopes to pick up a few rides from elsewhere, possibly through Mullins or Welsh trainer Rebecca Curtis.

Supasundae, who looks set to run in the first race of the festival, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, is one Burke is particularly keen on. Especially after the six-year-old bay gelding won the Paddy Power Maiden Hurdle so convincingly at Leopardstown last December.

“I was very taken by his performance at Christmas, I was expecting a good performance but I wasn’t expecting the performance that he brought to the table that day,” Burke said of the De Bromhead-trained star.

“To beat Silver Concorde in the manner that he did was very impressive.

“I do appreciate that Silver Concorde will improve an awful lot for it but I think visually the way my horse won was very impressive. And I do feel there is plenty more to come. He’s been trained very well by Henry this year.”

Blood

Burke was always going to be involved in racing, it’s in his blood. His father, Liam, is a trainer in his native Cork.

But he still considers himself incredibly fortunate to be living his dream, and he puts a lot of that down to having such wise people around him from such an early age.

“Racing was always there, it was all I ever knew,” said Burke, who speaks with humility and courtesy.

“Dad always had horses around, I remember we had almost 100 horses in training at one stage.

“I sat on my first racehorse when I was eight, I went into Willie Mullins’s yard when I was 11.

“I’m one of the fortunate ones.

I don’t, for a second, take for granted how lucky I’ve been. I’ve had the best people around me from the start.

“My agent is Gary Cribbin, he contacted my dad when I was 17 and I was only amateur.

“He didn’t need to work for me as an amateur. And he built up a whole heap of contacts for me. He’s had a massive influence on my career.

“I was in Willie Mullins’s yard and working with the calibre of jockey that he has around there. Spending time with Paul Townend and living with him, it was all so helpful.

“But getting a job off Alan Potts as an 18-year-old, when I was still learning my trade and riding off a five-pound claim, I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank him.”

Measure

It’s a measure of how far he has come that he was regularly racing against his idols, the likes of Ruby Walsh and the now-retired AP McCoy, while still in his teens.

A particular moment in Meath last year stood out for the now 20-year-old, who took part in a Cheltenham preview race night in The Goat pub in Dublin last Tuesday night.

“Ruby Walsh was the jockey I would have modelled myself on. It was amazing to even ride work against him in Willie Mullins’s yard and here I am riding races against him.

“Last year I rode in the Ryanair Gold Cup in Fairyhouse and I came to the last and I had Ruby on my right and McCoy on my left so I went away and I got that picture framed. I finished third but I went away and got that picture framed because that’s something kids dream of.

Tony McCoy onboard Gilgamboa (right) clears the last with Giitane Du Berlais, ridden by Ruby Walsh, (left) and Smashing, ridden by JJ Burke, on the way to winning the Ryanair Gold Cup. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Burke doesn’t know what else he’d be doing if he wasn’t in racing, it’s a lifestyle with room for little else.

Although, he is considering graduating from caddie to golfer later this year when the greens firm up.

“Racing is everything,” Burke explained.

I spend a bit of time being Paul Townend’s caddie, I haven’t swung a club yet though. Maybe next summer.

The odd preview night will be his only real distraction between now and his competitive return to the race track, although he admits that those events can prove useful for picking up information on English horses.

Right now he’s just happy to be back in the saddle, especially with the Cheltenham Festival, and all its bells and whistles, just around the corner.

For more on Irish racing, visit www.GoRacing.ie

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Alan Waldron

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