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Ronnie Burke on what has driven him to the top of the sport

September 19, 2021

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“Winning is what it is all about… The day I become satisfied with losing, is probably the day I should get out of this business.”

by Murray Brown

There are many aspects of this life of ours of great importance; chief among them are health, family and quality of life. Aside from those essentials, one stands out for Ronnie Burke that can be described in one word: winning.

“Winning is what it is all about — the more the better. Don’t get me wrong, if you are involved in harness racing, or most racing, you are going to lose more races than you are going to win. My job is to raise those numbers and expectations. The day I become satisfied with losing, is probably the day I should get out of this business.”

Harness racing’s all-time money-winning trainer year after year after year is never satisfied. His feats and numbers are without comparison. When it comes to numbers of races won and money earned by his charges, nobody has ever been close. Moreover, he covers all aspects of the sport. Whether it is with overnight horses, the development of young stakes horses and now even with the standing of stallions, ownership of broodmares and breeding their own yearlings, the combination of all these entities, the Burke operation stands alone. Ronnie is clear to point out that it is an operation composed of numerous parts.

“I might be the face of it, but there are numerous people without whose participation we could not function as we do, let alone doing so successfully. It’s a team effort with every member of the team contributing.”

Since you mentioned the word “team,” let’s start there. Who are the team members and what are their functions?

“I’ll start at the top with the team’s most important member, my dad Mickey, Sr. He is the font from which all the success that we have enjoyed flows. He is the person who started the business and had the foresight to envision what it might eventually become. It wasn’t an easy decision by him to become a full-time harness racing trainer. He was in the automobile business and was reasonably successful at it. He had also dabbled in show horses and jumpers. He started his stable with two cheap horses and it grew from there. Even though he is now 85, he still rides every day and is the person most involved with the breaking and education of the yearlings that we train.

“Then there is my mom, Sylvia, who handles most of the business aspects of the operation. She sends out and pays all of our bills. She also coordinates the staking and shipping of all the horses. My brother Mickey Jr and sister Michelle are trainers with Mickey often being on the road with our better stakes horses. He ships them and also trains them in preparation for their upcoming events.

“To this point, everyone I’ve mentioned has been family. Although Mark Weaver isn’t blood related, I look upon him as being a most important member of our family and the operation. He is our racehorse person. There is nobody I know who can watch a race and judge the potential of a racehorse as well as Mark. He scouts possible purchases and sales and is an invaluable aid in determining the possible value of a horse. Mark is a gambler. He brings the gambler’s perspective to the operation in terms of a risk/reward ratio for the operation.

“To this point, everyone that I’ve mentioned is what I call ‘all in’ on harness racing. This is basically what they do — all that they do. Of course, they might have some other interests, but their chief abiding one is harness racing. Their health, both financial and emotional, is to a great degree entirely dependent on the success of the operation.

“We have training operations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey. Each operation has a trainer and staff. Most of them have been with us for some time and they know what to do. We have basically the same program by which we train most of our horses. I’m headquartered at The Meadows, but I make the rounds whenever it becomes necessary to do so.

“Then there are our owners. They are an incredible bunch — all have become friends. Some are very active in what we do. Others are just content to be outside observers. We have some owners who are invaluable, specifically Mark in buying and selling racehorses, and others such as Larry Karr, Phil Colura, Howard Taylor and Bill Donovan in doing the research and analysis leading up to our interest in and purchases of yearlings.

You mention the “program”. This is a term that I’ve often heard when describing your operation. What is it and how does it function?

“We train most of our horses, especially the racehorses, according to a given philosophy and template. I’m a big believer in having the horse know when it is going to work and when it’s going to rest. We believe in training our horses hard. We want them to know that when they race they are going to have to work hard. When we take a horse on the track, we don’t want them lolly gagging. We want them concentrating on their work. They are competitors and we want them ready to compete when they are on the track. I’d be the first to admit that this does not necessarily work for all horses, but its worked well for us.

A commonly mentioned comment that I’ve often heard regarding you is how does he find enough hours in a day to accomplish all that he does? Could you take us through a typical day for Ronnie Burke.

“I’m an early riser and I find that I get most of my best work done early in the morning. I’m usually up and at it at about 6 a.m. The first thing I’ll usually do is go over the entries and begin entering horses. This is actually much easier and less time consuming than it used to be because we can do it electronically. I still sometime do it at night, but it’s always a waste of time, because I’ll almost always change it in the morning when I’m much sharper.

“I’ll then go to the track. This is my favorite time of the day. I become consumed with the horses and it’s only the horses that I’m involved with, both in my body and my mind. Depending on the amount to train on a given day, I’ll have lunch sometime between 11 and noon. I’ll spend the afternoons warming up horses and watching races. I love watching live races while at the racetrack. In comparison, I hate watching replays. I’m different than someone like Mark in that respect. He’ll see just as much watching a replay or even watching a race on a monitor when watching it outside is an option.

“I’m quite ambivalent about daytime racing. I think in the long run it hurts us. There’s something to be said about sticking with the horse that brought us here. In our case it was nighttime racing that made harness racing successful. Now we’ve gone away from it. I’m not saying that it’s the sole reason why crowds are down, but it definitely is a contributing factor. Owners like to see their horses race. Many of them cannot if they are racing in the day time as far as them being able to go to the track in the day time. It really hurts participation in the sport.

“If time permits, I’ll have dinner and then watch all the races of horses we have in that evening. As I said before, I might do some entries later, but it’s usually a waste of time and effort.”

You have been known to embrace the future rather than to dwell in the past. Would you say that is accurate?

“Yes and no. I try to do what science and experience dictates what is best. Of course, doing things electronically is better and much more efficient than phoning entries in. Our horses do not get walked after they race, not only because it’s a cost saver or because it’s a better use of time and manpower, but most importantly because science has told us that it’s the best for the horse. That is our top priority: Doing what is best for the horse. All success flows from there.

“In some ways I guess that I am a traditionalist. I’m not at all opposed to heat racing, but on a limited basis. There is still no better race than the Little Brown Jug. You can include the Hambletonian. I’m sure I’ll get some feedback on that. But that is something that I truly believe. Although, I’d sure like to win a Hambletonian one day. I catch a lot of negative feedback on this, but I thought The Adios was a better race when we had heats for it on the same day with the winner earning his position. We’ve changed one great day of racing for two good ones. There is nothing like a day of racing at Lexington in the fall.”

 You are widely expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame with next year’s class (voting results are expected this week). What were your thoughts?

“I’m grateful of course. There were those who have said it’s about time. The truth is it’s important to me, but probably not nearly as important as some might think it would be. If I had my druthers, I would have much preferred that the honor would have gone to my father. He started this all alone. I came into the game when we were somewhat established and already had a good team and built from there. I thought I was worthy, but I didn’t have any say in the matter, so I didn’t let it bother me. I supposed that I realized that I was going to get there sooner or later, but I will admit that in recent years I began wondering. The one thing that is especially gratifying is that I, as well as others like Timmy (Tetrick) and Yannick (Gingras) are experiencing it at an age where we are young enough to appreciate it. Some are not so fortunate. There are those who don’t make it until they are too old to really get the most from it or even worse, in the case of guys like Jackie Mo, Luc Ouellette and Lucien Fontaine who should already be in there, but might never make it.”

Let’s talk about drivers. How do you go about choosing yours?

“There are quite a few factors. I would say the most important one is feel. There are some givens. At Pocono it’s Matt Kakaley. At Yonkers it’s George Brennan. In Ohio it’s usually Chris Page, but now I’m using Ronnie Wrenn, as well. But Chris usually gets first call. Here at The Meadows I use Dave Palone, Mike Wilder, Ronnie Wrenn and occasionally one or two others. If I’m successful with a given driver and a given horse, I’ll rarely change. On the Grand Circuit or The Meadowlands, Yannick will usually get first call. He has conflicts. However with things being equal, I’d want him to pick me. I first started using David Miller and Brian Sears about a hundred years ago at The Meadows. You know what they say about the more things change, the more they remain the same. I’m back to using both of them again. I do value youth, though. I’m never afraid of giving a young person with talent a chance to use it. That’s how we got started with Matt. One never knows with drivers as to when they are slipping, but it will happen to all of them. Father Time is still undefeated.”

Do you go over races with your drivers?

“Almost never. The only time I might do it is if there is something specific about a given horse that they should know. I never rehash a race with a driver after it’s over. I don’t need them to tell me how a horse raced. I have two eyes and I can see. If they screwed up, both of us know it. They don’t need me to tell them. The same applies to when they might have driven brilliantly. Another thing is that it’s possible to drive extremely well in a race and still not have favorable results. Stuff happens. Every once in a while a driver can screw up and have things to his advantage.”

Which people have had the greatest affect on your success?

“Of course, my father would be number one. One of the most important things about him is that he understands horses and their thought process. You’d be surprised at how many do not. Another one who probably very few reading this would have heard of is Dick Snyder, Doug and Dane’s father. He took me under his wing and taught me lots of things that I’ve never forgotten. He wanted to take me to Florida to train with him while I was still in school. My father vetoed that and said that I had to finish college first. Then I could do whatever I wanted. Dick Stillings is one of the greatest horsemen that ever lived. If you watched and copied him, you would have to be pretty stupid not to have learned from doing so. There were owners like George Leon, John Howard and Jim Koran who were willing to go out and spend money to give to a young stable which hadn’t yet proven itself.”

Which horsemen do you most admire today?

“Number one would be Jimmy Takter. I’ve never had a conversation with him — and I’ve had lots of them — where I’ve walked away not knowing more than I did before the conversation began. Number two would be Ake Svanstedt. He is a master horseman in every respect. If you don’t learn by watching him, it’s your fault.”

Tell me some things I might not know about you.

“I’m a very sore loser. Never ask me about a horse after it has raced poorly. My response might be ‘You saw the same as me.’ I don’t need to be told what I saw.

“I rarely praise and I rarely criticize. What some might regard as a bad drive, I might regard as a bad trip. There can be a big difference. There are more horses in a race whose destiny you do not control than the one that you, to a degree, might. I like long-term relationships. I’m not arrogant. At least, I don’t think so. When you might think I’m being arrogant, I’m probably thinking about something else.

“I don’t get along with all horses. There are some to which I might be a detriment. I hope I’m able to recognize it. One example might be a flighty or goofy horse. I don’t like them. They usually don’t like me. In which case I’ll have someone like my brother or father who have more patience go with it.

“Being dumb is alright, just so long as you are smart enough to recognize it. I hope that I am and am able to change direction when that happens.

“It used to be almost all that mattered was money earned, when it came to horses. That is still very important, of course. But winning has become just as, if not more important. People speak of me having won more than 12,000 races. The thing is, I’ve lost over 40,000. I’m constantly trying to lower that margin.”

Tell me about yearling shopping.

“Information is key. The more the better. I have a terrific team in that respect — people who study, pedigrees, videos and perhaps, most importantly, history. It’s mostly geography and a sire’s game for me, at least to begin with. I’m like Willie Sutton was when he spoke of why he robbed banks. His answer was that was where the money is. That’s what I do when looking at yearlings. I go where the money is being offered. That usually means the richest sires stakes. I like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana best, probably in that order. Kentucky and to some degree New Jersey are on the upswing. Nothing is an absolute. There can be exceptions to most things. In terms of big versus small, I prefer bigger horses. I like lazy, but I hate pouty or sour. That’s probably why I’ve done so well with Dragon Again. They tended to be on the lazy order.

“There are no hidden bargains today. It’s important that I look at as many yearlings as possible. The team is a big help in whittling that list down.

“Videos can lie, especially when it comes to size. I like that some breeders are measuring their yearlings and putting that information on their videos.”

What is missing in your life?

“I hope it’s far from over. I need to travel a whole lot more. I need to see more of this great country of which, in relative terms, I’ve seen so little and this great big world of which it constitutes a small part.

“I love to eat and drink well, particularly good red wines. There are thousands of great restaurants in America alone. Two of the very best Il Villaggio and the River Palm Edgewater are close to the Meadowlands. I try to visit either or both whenever I’m up there. I’ve never had a bad dish, let alone a bad meal at either of them.”

You and your wife Diane have two grown up sons. Are either of them destined towards harness racing?

“My oldest son, Ryan, loves horses and harness racing, but he has other career aspirations. My youngest son, Brad, loves horses and the people in it. Both boys are occasional riders rather than grooms, more because we needed riders more than we needed grooms. Brad also wanted to take care of one, so he has. If I say so he did a great job with and took pride in it. If one is destined to became a horseman, it will be Brad.”

As I often do, I’ll finish with the dreaded COVID-19. How has it affected you guys?

“I would say better than most. We were some time without racing at its beginning. That really hurt our cash flow. All money was going out, with nothing coming in. Once we started racing again, things got better. It’s still a mess, though. I don’t believe that all will be well for quite some time. One minor good thing was I’ve learned to appreciate eating outdoors. Before COVID, I wouldn’t have thought of doing it. Now, I actually enjoy it.”

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