by Murray Brown
Thank you to everybody who responded to my last column regarding the 10 greatest horsemen I’ve known personally (full story here).I felt like a budding rockstar.
The column garnered more response by far, than all of my previous ones.
Whether you agreed with my choices, or, in a couple of instances, strongly disagreed, your input was greatly appreciated.
Before I proceed with this week’s column, a couple of apologies are in order.
Chuck Sylvester trained four Hambletonian winners, not three. I had forgotten about Park Avenue Joe and his dead heat triumph.
Secondly and most importantly, my sincere apologies go out to the numerous great horsemen and their connections who were inadvertently left off the list.
They deserved inclusion, but perhaps due to my oncoming onset of senility, were left off.
They include, but are not limited to such as: Doug Ackerman, Ralph Baldwin, Del Cameron, Jonel Chyriachos, Steve Elliott, Frank Ervin, Glen Garnsey, Jack Kopas, Joe O’Brien, Harry Pownall, John Simpson Jr and Bill Wellwood.
Each and every one of these gentlemen and likely several more, should at least have been in the honorable mention category.
It is not they who were lacking, but rather your scribe, who’s memory and attention to detail are nowhere near what they used to be.
On to this week…
If you have not yet seen or listened to the 1 hour, 22 minutes and 45 seconds interview of Ron Burke by Ryan Clements, I urge you to do so, post haste. It can be viewed on YouTube here:
Simply put, it is in my not so humble opinion, it is one of the greatest and most insightful interviews that that I’ve seen in my 65 plus years in this glorious sport.
Here are some of the most prescient and salient points I garnered from it:
Far and away Number One, is that if you are going to interview someone as totally focused as Ron Burke, or anybody else for that matter, a great aid will be a bottle of top red wine. In this case it was a Darioush cabernet franc from Napa Valley.
When asked to name the greatest horse with which he was associated, Ron answered without the slightest amount of hesitation that it was Mission Brief. I wasn’t all that surprised by the answer, but I did expect some degree of hesitancy. After all, the man has trained Foiled Again, Sweet Lou, Southwind Frank and several other horses who could be deemed as being great. But Ron said that this great filly stood well above all the others. He went on to say that in his opinion she could be a breed changer. As it always does, time will decide that.
Again without hesitancy, Ron said that the two greatest horses he has ever seen were Muscle Hill on the trot and Somebeachsomewhere on the pace.
Not that my opinion is all that important, but if I were asked that question, my answer would be exactly the same — again with no hesitancy.
When looking at yearlings he prefers “sturdy” to “racy” (my word choices, not his). Obviously a combination of the two would be best.
He trains his horses hard and wants to win every race he has one in.
Another area on which we somewhat agree is that he considers Mike Lachance to be the best all-around horseman he has ever been around. I don’t know that Iron Mike is the very best, but he certainly belongs in any thinking person’s conversation.
I’m sure that many, but not all horsemen would agree with Ron that a bad loss is worse than a good win is satisfying.
I know that is the case with me. With all the great horses that Hanover was affiliated and with which I took great pride, when asked what my greatest disappointment in the game was, I would unhesitatingly say it was Western Hanover’s loss in the Little Brown Jug. I was depressed for days afterwards. Even now, more than two decades later, it still hurts when I think about it.
A good part of the conversation dealt with drivers and how much they have revolutionized the game.
Ron mentions Yannick Gingras as one who has the ideal combination of the ability to make speed and the brains to put that ability to great use.
As good as he was in his youth, Gingras has now added wisdom to his great repertoire.
What he may have in the unlikely possibly lost in the speed department is more than made up for with his great acquired experience and wisdom.
He could just as well have been speaking of someone like John Campbell or of the aging of a great wine.
There are distinct similarities in all three.
Of course, I had to bring wine into the discourse.
Ron said that when he first saw Dexter Dunn drive, he was skeptical of his ability to make speed. He felt that he drove a good horse race, almost always without tactical error, but he felt he was not getting them to go as fast as they were able. He then admits how wrong his first assessment was.
He is very proud of his role, as well he should be, in giving Matt Kakaley his first chance as a prominent driver.
He mentions one time when quite young (he still is) Matt got parked the mile with one of the Burke horses. Instead of driving on and getting nothing and possibly hurting his horse, Matt just rode and concentrated on keeping his horse brave and fresh. He went on to win the race. It was at that specific time that Ronnie felt that Matt had the “it factor” that separates the top drivers from the adequate or less ones. It’s something that cannot be taught. It can be refined for sure, but one either has it or doesn’t.
Dexter Dunn wasn’t the only driver that Ronnie’s first impression of, was not the best. Another one was David Miller, who quickly proved him wrong after a few days of racing at The Meadows.
Strangely absent from the conversation was the man who has probably driven more Burke horses to success and still does was Dave Palone. I’m just guessing that for some reason, his name did not come up and he wasn’t mentioned. Neither were any of the drivers including the red hot Mike Wilder, who the Burkes use at The Meadows.
Ron trains his horses hard because his expectations for them are very high. The stable rarely, if ever, sends out an unfit horse to race.
That occasionally has backfired. He believes that he might have taken the edge off of Sweet Lou by training him in 1:47 the week before The Meadowlands Pace.
He might have been sharper in the Pace if he had saved that training mile for the next week.
When asked if he had any surprises where a youngster was okay in training down, but did not show anything to get really excited about.
He mentioned Southwind Frank as a colt who was just okay, but the faster they went the better he got.
Once he started racing, he was virtually unbeatable as a 2-year-old and a strong factor in his 3-year-old campaign.
There have been more of the other kind — youngsters who they thought could develop into top horses and just didn’t meet their expectations. That’s not to say that many of them did not turn out to be very useful horses, but not what he thought they could and would be.
He said that when they are at the 2:20 stage is when you get a line of who the best are and who the also rans might be.
Not that I’m a trainer or profess to know that much, but I think that line with today’s breed of horse comes much later on.
The line that separates the just good from the special is and always has been the racetrack.
It’s when you ask them and the competitive urge in some of them wants to go further and with others they decide they would rather be doing something else.
You can usually tell this, at least from my vantage point as both a fan and one who wagered on horses from as early as their first qualifier.
I surmised that Ron felt pretty much the same.
If they disappoint at the beginning, then usually they are not what you thought they might be.
Ron said words to the effect that “you might want to sugar coat it, but you know, you just know.”
One of the subjects that I would have liked to have heard addressed is Ron’s generally quick use of the knife on colts to make them geldings.
A horse that wasn’t mentioned and really in my opinion doesn’t get near the respect he deserves is Elver Hanover.
True, he raced mostly in Ohio. But he came to Lexington and took on and whipped the best he was in against in Grand Circuit action there — two weeks in a row.
Not only that, of all this year’s terrific group of 2-year-old pacers, he was the only one to go through the season undefeated.
I would have asked the question why Elver Hanover began the season as a gelding. I only ask this because I have some personal knowledge of that particular horse’s personality. He was one of the sweetest, kindest, most intelligent colts I was ever around in 51 yearling crops at Hanover. Just guessing, and it is nothing but a guess, I would say that maybe it was because he was by Yankee Cruiser, but so is arguably the Burke’s greatest pacer and budding successful sire Sweet Lou.
They spoke a little about thoroughbreds and the terrible experiences that industry is now going through. He said that with all the deaths, now associated with that sport, he couldn’t possibly imagine himself involved in it.
He went on to say that he couldn’t remember the last standardbred that he saw die in competition. For that matter, neither can I.
Ron’s favorite race, despite some of its deficiencies, is the Little Brown Jug. He left room for the Hambletonian, if he were fortunate to win one.
He knew the feeling for about 10 minutes and then had it taken away.
He likes lazy horses. That’s why he felt that he had so much success with horses by Dragon Again. They were lazy. But they were also tough. They could take the tough program that the Burke Stable follows.
I felt that Ron is a strong proponent in keeping horses outdoors as much as possible and not having them alone. As John Simpson would often say: “The horse is a herd animal. It is not meant to be alone.” Of course, there are exceptions. It would be downright foolish to put two breeding stallions together.
Mr Simpson also was a great believer in fresh air. All the doors in Ron’s stable are always open, regardless of how cold it is. Again as Mr Simpson would say, “The horse is a cold weather animal. Put some food in its belly and provide shelter from the wind and it will thrive.”
I sensed, but do not recall Ron specifically saying that he was also not a big believer in blanketing horses.
He is, as many others are, is a big fan of Dr Bridgette Jablonsky. He values her insight into horses, not only yearlings but all horses.
More than anything, he values the fact that her opinion is always an honest one. If asked her opinion, she will give you an honest answer — good or bad. Not only to the Ron Burkes of the world, but to just about everyone in the business, regardless of their status.
Ron agrees with what Delvin Miller told me many years ago. Delvin viewed a horse having long pasterns as more of an asset as opposed to a detriment. Sure, the possibility of a horse being slightly predisposed to lameness is slightly increased, but so is the likelihood of it being fast increased. The spring in the pastern is where the speed often comes from.
Ron loves and uses TrackIt furnished by Standardbred Canada almost exclusively. He believes that USTA doesn’t even come close to Standardbred Canada in providing the concise and detailed information that today’s horseman needs.
I could go on and on.
But you would be far better served to watch the interview rather than listen to me continue to blather on.
Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.