Ron Burke of Canonsburg, PA, had 840 wins totalling $18 million last year, and has two Dan Patch winners, Won The West and Buck I St Pat, in his stable. Itís an unlikely outcome for a kid who was terrified of horses.
It seems impossible for North America’s top conditioner in both races won and purse money for the last four years was petrified of horses until he entered his teen years, but Ron Burke admits that certainly was the case.
“Up until I was about 12 or 13 I hated the horses,” explained the 40-year-old Canonsburg, Pa. resident. “They would get loose at our farm and I would call my dad at work and say, ‘your horses are loose and I’m not going out to get them.’ I didn’t want to go near them because I was afraid and that is a fact.”
Burke’s dad Mickey, who was the 2006 Trainer of the Year and the first Standardbred trainer on this continent to win more than $7.8 million in one year, agrees that it certainly took some time for his son to vanquish his equine-related qualms.
“The truth is he was scared of horses,” the 75-year-old said with a chuckle. “He wouldn’t come out of the house until they were caught. In fact, Sylvia, (Mickey’s wife and Burke’s mother) said he used to hide under the table. When a horse would run at him in the field, he would start running and screaming and I would say to him, ‘he won’t run over you,’ and he would turn around and say to me, ‘bull Dad.’”
Once Burke made a connection with an individual horse, he realized his fear of death beneath their hooves was unfounded.
“We kept going to the barns to help my dad out and I found out I could take care of a horse that no one else could,” he said. “After that I pretty much knew I would like it (working in the business.) My parents made me go college at California University of Pennsylvania in Erie, but I already knew I wanted to work with the horses before I ever went to college or graduated.”
After graduation Burke began working for his dad along with his brother Mickey Jr., and his sister Michelle. Mickey Sr., was a successful automobile dealership owner, but sold the business in 1985 after convincing Sylvia that if they couldn’t make ends meet, then he would go back into the car business.
“We got into the horses in 1982 and they were just a hobby,” he recalled. “I sold the dealership in November of 1985 and it just kept building from there. My wife and I discussed it and if we ever had to get into our reserve accounts we decided I would go back to work. Luckily it worked out.
“Each year we did better and better and broke our own records,” Mickey continued. “Ronnie worked for me and gradually took on more and more responsibility until I turned it over to him a couple years ago after I got very sick with Legionnaire’s disease. It affected my heart and I told the boys and Michelle either they had to take it over or we had to sell the horses, because I realized I just wasn’t going to be healthy enough to do it. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed and am in good health now. I stay in Florida and take care of the babies while Michelle takes care of the stable at The Meadows and Mickey takes care of the horses at our training center. Ronnie flies down here once a month to give me a second opinion and Sylvia is in charge of all the books.”
Although Burke, who became the first trainer to best all drivers in wins (840) and purses (more than $18 million) last year, is no longer terrified of horses, the reason he loves his profession has nothing to do with strong emotional equine attachments and he doesn’t allow running such a large stable to interfere with his family time.
“By far the (thing I like most) is training them to go fast,” he said. “Truthfully, it’s not the horses, it’s the racing I like. The rush of winning is always going to be there. It doesn’t matter what kind of race it is; I even like winning qualifiers. I really do just like winning.
“I don’t even consider this work,” Burke continued. “I have a lot of great help, but I really enjoy what I do and I definitely don’t have a bad attitude in the morning when I get up to go to work. Also, with technology I can take my show on the road, do whatever I have to do and still be with my family.”
His father feels Burke would have thrived in whatever career he chose.
“If I would have stayed in the car business and Ronnie decided to be a car dealer, he would have been the best car dealer there ever was,” Mickey explained. “He was going to be successful no matter what. He graduated suma cum laude from college without putting a lot of effort into it. He’s a very intelligent person with a photographic mind. He can read a 400 page book in a flight from Pittsburgh to Daytona and he’s a very determined person. I asked my wife one day, ‘Where did he get that bull-headed temper?’ and she just started laughing.
“His mind is like a computer,” he continued. “Mark Goldberg, a very good trainer at The Meadows, used to call him Rainman and when his wife asked him why, he told her one morning when they were jogging horses together, a horse came out on the track that hadn’t been out there in two and a half years. Ronnie proceeded to tell him the history of the horse, like what he wore and everything else. The kicker was he had never had the horse had in his life. He just knows every horse on the racetrack.”
The elder Burke also has other reasons for his son’s emergence as a top class conditioner.
“He knows how to handle horses in spotting lameness and knows how to re-rig them,” Mickey said. “Most people get a copy of the previous trainer’s card when they claim a horse. Ronnie and I go with the theory that if we don’t know how to rig them, we shouldn’t buy them in the first place, so we never get a card. We start from zero and believe me, we end up usually having the horse wear a third of the equipment it did before.”
He continues to establish new earnings records, has two Dan Patch victors (Won The West and Buck I St Pat) in his barn and has already amassed more than $1.3 million this year, but Burke admits there is a goal he still must accomplish.
“I want to win the Jug,” he said. ‘I probably didn’t go to the Jug until I was at least in my twenties and when you bring horses there you understand how great it really is.
“I raced in the Elitlopp (Swedish trotting race) with Buck I St Pat and when I went over there I had so many people tell me there was no race in the world that could give you a feeling like that,” he continued. “I would have to tell all of them that you need to go to Delaware, Ohio, because there is nothing except the Jug that gives me that special feeling; there is nothing in the world like it.”
He still has decades of racing before him, but Mickey feels Burke has already established his legacy and merely continues to build upon it.
“As you can see, I’m very, very proud of him and I think he will go down in history as one of the greatest horsemen that has ever lived,” he said. “I’ll be totally honest and I think I should be in the Hall of Fame because we have rewritten the business, but I think he will get there and I don’t think I will.
“This year I said either he or Jimmy Takter should get Trainer of the Year or they should stop giving out the award,” Mickey continued. “Jimmy got it and I was thrilled for him. We are close and he called me everyday for three months when I was sick just to see how I was doing, but when I called him up to congratulate him, I told him I was proud as hell of him, but that we still beat him by $10 million. Ronnie will have his time and I’m thrilled he still respects me enough to ask my opinion because he certainly doesn’t need it.”