Cracking on with Karl

Whichever measure you use, Karl Burke has got to be high up on any list of Britain's best trainers, and this season is as exciting as any to date

Northern soul: Karl Burke enjoys training in Middleham after previous spells in Wantage and Newmarket. Photo: Louise Pollard

Your stable has been on an upward curve in the past few years, with more boxes, enhanced facilities, better quality runners and Group 1 winners. What’s driving this improvement?

Being able to source good horses and ultimately reinvesting in the infrastructure of Spigot Lodge. We have been able to keep shares in some of the better horses, as well as a lot of the bad ones. Thankfully the better outweigh the bad! We are just finishing the last phase of expanding facilities, building another barn, a covered ride plus two houses for staff accommodation.

We have 128 horses in at the moment and I wouldn’t want to be any bigger. In fact, we might tighten up the numbers and go for quality over quantity.

I certainly couldn’t get my head round training 200 horses. But we are receiving more orders and our cashflow has improved as a result of being able to sell horses we have had shares in. I intend to continue to keep a leg in some of the more expensive horses, though always mindful it can backfire very quickly.

This upturn in your yard’s fortunes follows a difficult time for you personally, having received a one-year ban for passing information to a disqualified person in 2009-10. Was there ever a time when you thought your training career was over?

At the time of the ban I considered selling up and starting again in France. I completed the course for my trainer’s licence in France and looked at properties over there; we had done quite a bit of racing in France and really enjoyed it.

But it was the time of the property crash and, fortunately or unfortunately, we couldn’t sell Spigot Lodge. We stuck on here and Elaine, my wife, was adamant she should keep going with the support of our daughters Kelly and Lucy, as well as a couple of very loyal owners.

How supportive were your family when you were without a licence?

They wouldn’t give Elaine the licence while I was still banned. I couldn’t live at Spigot Lodge while it was a licensed property, so I disappeared and Elaine’s dad, Alan Jarvis, took over for an interim period with Elaine as assistant.

We eventually closed the yard and a couple of very loyal owners, John Hughes and Ray Bailey, stayed with us and Elaine was assistant to John and Kirsty Weymes, who were licensed in our adjacent property, Little Spigot.

I would read the racing in the paper before going to school and listen to the results on the radio in the evening

We were down from 90 to about 20 horses at the time. They had 18 winners that year under John Weymes, so we were able to pay the mortgage. There weren’t many staff around at the time and Kelly and Lucy were a fantastic help.

Libertarian came along afterwards when I was listed as assistant to Elaine and he was most welcome, finishing second in the 2013 Derby. His sale to Godolphin was a huge financial boost and could hardly have come at a better time.

Did the experience change your outlook on training and life in general?

It made me realise that having a trainer’s licence is a privilege, not a right. Almost like stepping off the treadmill; a break from getting up and permanently thinking about what’s happening in an hour’s time, later in the day, next week, whenever. You never stop.

In hindsight, to be knocked off that perpetual wheel was a good thing. It made me relax, rather than rushing here, there, everywhere and even in the car cursing slow drivers! Suddenly there was no rush. Once I got over the initial shock of being banned it was probably the best year I’d had.

I did a fair bit of travelling, to Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as a 2,500 mile charity bike ride, zig-zagging to every racecourse, from Perth to Newton Abbot in 40 days.

Karl Burke has a string of around 130 horses at Spigot Lodge where wife Elaine, seen here leading the string on Jay Kay is a vital part of the operation. Photo: Louise Pollard

The son of a publican, you grew up in two pubs in Rugby. What was the attraction of racing in those early days?

I was interested in ponies when I was about ten and my dad had a big Irish-based pub, the Red Lion in Hillmorton. Dad loved his racing and it was always on in the bar on Saturdays and he used to take me to Leicester and Warwick.

I would read the racing in the paper before going to school and listen to the results on the radio in the evening, marking them down in the paper. After taking my O Levels in 1979 I had a holiday job at Hugh O’Neill’s stables in Dorking and never went home because Hugh offered me an apprenticeship.

I came back closer to home from O’Neill’s to work for Elaine’s dad, Alan Jarvis, near Coventry and my first ride for him, The Britisher, was a winner at Hamilton. But I was always going to be too big for the Flat. At that stage Elaine and I were good friends, but we didn’t start going out together for two or three years.

What made you want to train and what route did you take before arriving at Spigot Lodge in Middleham?

I didn’t really want to train because I could see the hassles and financial problems of the business. It never really interested me until we bought a property with a few acres at Newark. We took in a few horses at livery from the people I was riding for.

I enjoyed getting the horses ready, learnt a lot about feeding and progressed into training, which at the time was a mistake because we didn’t have the money or proper facilities.

After two years at Broadway we moved near Wantage, between Henrietta Knight and Andy Turnell, but outgrew the place, went to Newmarket and rented David Morley’s former stables, where we had 129 winners in two years.

Racing will have to think seriously about the effects Brexit could have on stable staffing

We wanted to buy a place but could not afford Newmarket prices and were told Spigot Lodge was for sale. We moved to Middleham with 60 horses but within six months were down to 35 because most of our owners were southern-based. It was a struggle at first, but we knew the property had scope.

What are the pros and cons of training in Middleham? And how big a problem is finding staff in the Yorkshire Dales?

I’m a great believer that if you’re training winners, people will support you wherever you are. But there are a lot of owners in the south who’d rather have their horses trained nearer to home than in the north.

That may be a negative, but there are far more pros for Middleham. The gallops are excellent, very healthy for the horses. The logistics of getting to the races are very good; there are 17 courses within two hours by horsebox.

Even travelling south to the London tracks is not as bad as people make out. I think we can get staff here more easily than trainers can in the south.

You keep hearing horror stories about stables in Newmarket, Lambourn and Epsom trying to attract staff. The cost of living is that much cheaper in Yorkshire.

As an industry, I think racing will have to think seriously about the effects Brexit could have on stable staffing.

You have made several successful raids to France, winning Group 1s there. Apart from prize-money, what is the main attraction?

I’ve always enjoyed racing in France because it is very relaxed. The sport there is put on by horsemen for horsemen with good prize-money in a convivial atmosphere.

France is a beautiful country, but I didn’t realise how big until we started having runners at tracks in the south.

Laurens and PJ McDonald win their second Group 1 in France with a gutsy success in the Prix de Diane. Photo: George Selwyn

Laurens has battled courageously to win two Group 1s in France – the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) and the Prix Saint-Alary. What’s her likely programme and what makes her so good?

I think we might bypass the Irish Oaks so she can have an easy two or three weeks and then we can prepare her for the Yorkshire Oaks.

Obviously, we’re stepping her up in trip and if we find that’s a mistake we have the shorter Prix de l’Opera as a back up on Arc weekend. But if all goes well at a mile and a half we’ll aim for the Arc.

Laurens hasn’t finished yet; she is probably the classiest of them all

The reaction we have had since the French Oaks has been fantastic and we’ve received an invitation to a huge fillies and mares race in Japan in November, with expenses paid. So that’s another possibility.

I think Laurens’s greatest asset is her natural huge stride and high cruising speed. She just keeps going and horses find it difficult to pass her.

What would be your advice to a new trainer embarking on his/her career?

Think again! No, seriously, if you believe in what you’re doing and things get tough, keep going. And then if things are going well, don’t get too complacent.

We have been very lucky, but it is hard to balance the books and impossible to compete with Coolmore and Godolphin.

Be aware that things can change very quickly for better or for worse; on your knees one minute and in the winner’s enclosure with a Group horse the next.

Lord Shanakill, Odeliz, Quiet Reflection, Laurens and Unfortunately have been Group 1 winners for you, while Libertarian finished second in the Derby. Which was the best and which has given you the most memorable moment?

At the time they were all very important for different reasons. The best day’s racing I have had was Derby day 2013 with Libertarian, finishing second to Ruler Of The World. From start to finish, Epsom looked after us really well.

We were taken round from seven in the morning from interview to interview because it was the 100th anniversary of suffragette Emily Davison’s death under the King’s horse at Tattenham Corner.

Elaine, as the licence holder, had a great chance to become the first woman to train a Derby winner and the atmosphere was fantastic. Sadly, it was not to be, but it was still an amazing day. We were very proud of Libertarian in defeat.

Profile-wise, Quiet Reflection winning the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot was the biggest.

Hopefully, Laurens hasn’t finished yet; she is probably the classiest of them all and has the most natural ability.

You have pulled off some remarkable coups in the sales ring, including Odeliz, bought for €22,000 and resold for 950,000 gns, and Quiet Reflection, bought for £44,000 and resold for 2.1m gns. How much pleasure do you get from such results?

The yearling sales are probably the most enjoyable part of the job. We work very hard at it and get a lot of satisfaction out of ‘pinching’ one and watching it progress.

It doesn’t matter what it’s bred by or related to – if it doesn’t look like an athlete I’m not going to buy it

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had, particularly if we have managed to hang on to a leg in one that turns out to be talented. Such success has put us in a totally different life position.

A lot has been re-invested in Spigot Lodge and hopefully that will repay us in the long run. We do 90% of the sales ourselves and if we work closely with any agent it would be BBA Ireland, where Eamonn Reilly, a good friend, is a director.

Kelly and Lucy do a lot at the sales, which takes much of the workload, while Elaine likes to do the Arqana and Tattersalls Osarus sales in France. Recently, with the support of owners like John Dance and Khalifa Dasmal, we have been able to look at a better class of horse, though generally we have to go for the not-so-obvious ones.

Based on the above, do fillies offer more value than colts and explain the success you have enjoyed in recent times?

Yes, I think the fillies do offer better value. All the big boys are after a stallion, trying to buy colts with good pedigrees. Generally, fillies are cheaper.

Obviously, I have my own ideas on what I look for, particularly conformation and the outlook of the animal; I like one with a good walk, an honest head and take it from there. I go for the horse rather than the pedigree, always trying to buy an athlete, not a sheet of paper.

Quiet Reflection’s win in the 2016 Commonwealth Cup was a pivotal moment for the trainer

For me, it doesn’t matter what it’s bred by or related to – if it doesn’t look like an athlete I’m not going to buy it. I often like to take a chance on first-season sires; Showcasing’s Toocoolforschool won the Mill Reef and then Quiet Reflection was from Showcasing’s second crop. Also, Unfortunately, our Prix Morny winner, was from Society Rock’s first crop.

How do you, Elaine and the girls spend your downtime together and relax away from racing?

We don’t do much, I’m afraid. It’s difficult living on the job but in winter we’ll have a few evenings out. If Elaine and I are away, Kelly and Lucy look after the job, and vice-versa. But we are all aiming to go away together on safari this winter.

What is the best thing – and the worst – about British racing?

The wide variety of our racecourses is a big attraction, while the standard of facilities at most tracks for both the horses and the public are of a high standard. The owners get well looked after in France, but nothing like they do in England.

However, I do think the racecourses have to be careful how they bring in the crowds. Food, drink and music may be boosting attendances. This policy of attracting as many people as possible to drink as much as they can is not good for horseracing.

You have to ask yourself if the drug problem that’s rearing its head on racecourses is a by-product of those pop bands performing after racing. I think we should concentrate more on the horse and everything it involves rather than trying to attract huge and, at times, unruly crowds.

The big attendances are great for the racecourses, but are the racecourses passing enough of that benefit on to the horsemen? I’m not so sure.

If you owned just one horse who would train it? And if you could win only one race which would it be, and why?

If it’s a two-year-old I’d send it to Tom Dascombe, because he’d wind it up to win first time and we’d have a great night out afterwards. Also William and Maureen Haggas do a fantastic job getting the best out of every class of horse.

The Derby is the one race most of us want to win. I have to say, watching the ITV coverage, they did a terrific job and are promoting racing unbelievably well. I know they have to be slightly betting orientated, but they are promoting the horses and people directly involved with them, which is so important. ITV must be kept on board.

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