Ron Burke wants good karma in this year’s Hambletonian
Despite a number of close calls, the Hall of Fame trainer is still looking for his first win in the big race.
by Debbie Little
Trainer Ron Burke knows a lot of things about the Hambletonian. He knows what it’s like to have two horses in the final, what it’s like to send out the morning-line favorite and even what it’s like to cross the wire first.
This year, he wants to know what it’s like to go into the record books as a Hambletonian champion.
In Celebrity Bambino and Point Of Perfect — 2-1 and 6-1, respectively, on the morning line — Burke again has a good chance to win the $1 million classic at The Meadowlands on Saturday (Aug. 5) that has eluded him with his five previous Hambletonian finalists.
Burke was second in 2015 with Mission Brief, the 4-5 favorite who was beaten three-quarters-of-a-length, and in 2016, when Southwind Frank came up a nose shy. In 2017, Burke trainee What The Hill crossed the wire first but was disqualified for interference and placed eighth.
“People always say you don’t know what it’s like to win a Hambo,” Burke said. “Yeah, I do. For 10 minutes I did. I also know what it’s like to have them take it away. That sucked.
“[In 2019, Maximum Security] got taken down in the [Kentucky] Derby and I’m sitting with people at the barn and they’re like, ‘I wonder how that feels?’ and I go ‘I know exactly how it feels.’”
After being driven in his Hambletonian elimination by Yannick Gingras, Point Of Perfect will be handled in the final by David Miller, who also drove What The Hill.
“It just seems like right now nothing goes wrong with me and David,” Burke said. “It’s a little bit to me like it’s karma. Like we are owed one — me and David are owed one.”
Burke believes Miller did nothing to cause the disqualification.
“I’ve never bitched to him about it,” Buke said. “Because I know in my heart Ake [Svanstedt] was coming out, Andy [Miller] was coming in, so it wasn’t his fault. I will say to this day he should have never come down and I feel it was because of a rush. They had seven minutes to make the decision before the TV show turned off and they rushed to judgement. If they would have taken their time, talked to everybody and looked at it. I feel me and David would already have a Hambo.”
Gingras will be driving Burke’s Celebrity Bambino in the final, who he chose over Point Of Perfect.
After winning the Hambletonian elimination with Bambino, Gingras was reminded by Meadowlands’ TV host Jessica Otten that he would have a choice to make for the final and he said in part, “Last time I won both eliminations I picked the wrong one, so maybe I’ll let you pick for me. What do you think?
“It’s the race everybody’s looking for. And it’s been well, well, well documented that it’s one thing that’s missing and I know it, so it’s going to come one of these days. I drive a lot of good horses for great connections.”
Gingras also said that he didn’t need to wait for the draw to decide who to drive in the final, that he was choosing Celebrity Bambino.
Gingras’ choice did not surprise Burke, who said that everything they did with Celebrity Bambino this year was with the Hambletonian in mind.
“We skipped the Zweig,” Burke said. “We tried him with no shoes in the Dancer, so we knew we could do it if we needed to and we did not like him with them off.
“We changed his racing style to more of a closer, because we just felt like there was only so many down-the-road trips in him and we didn’t want to use them all up before the Hambo. [Gingras] could have been third or fourth with Celebrity [in the elim] and he was still going to take him.”
Just like Burke and Miller, Gingras is also looking for his first victory in America’s Classic Trotting Race.
Gingras has had great success on Hambletonian Day, having won the Hambletonian Oaks – for 3-year-old filly trotters and companion race to the Hambletonian — a record six times, but the best he’s done in the Hambletonian was finish second on three separate occasions, including twice for Burke, the aforementioned Southwind Frank and Mission Brief.
“The loss with Mission brief was by far the worst loss of my career,” Burke said. “It’s worse than the What The Hill loss. You know, it’s like nothing hurt more.”
By virtue of the elimination victories by both of his horses, Burke knew they couldn’t draw worse than post 5 as stipulated in the race conditions. However, he is a traditionalist and would rather see both the draw and the race itself done differently.
“If you win, you pick your post,” Burke said. “It’s what the Adios does. [By winning the elimination] You earned the right to pick your post. To me, pick your post is the best. To me, pick your post or open draw, either way. I don’t subscribe to the go around there for the eliminations and just make the final thing, we try to win. People bet on the races. Our job is to go out and try to win every time. So, I don’t need that to try to win. I’m going to try to win anyhow. And plus, a $100,000 purse [for the eliminations] is enough reason to win.
And that’s not all he would change.
“I’m still unhappy that we’re not a two-heat race,” Burke said. “I would have rather been putting the harnesses back on both of those horses and going right back out. I’ve seen what it did to the Adios, we took one great day of racing and made two good days of racing. It never has been the same.
“Don’t tell me it hurts the horses. Bullshit. It doesn’t hurt the horses. I have never seen one of my horses that I found was hurt. I do it at the [Little Brown] Jug all the time and I think they come out of it even better.”
Burke agreed that in the past there were some logistical issues with Hambletonian heat racing, but he believes they no longer exist.
“They said it’s about getting the program out,” Burke said. “Listen, we all have these phones. You could send it to everybody that wanted it. They’re worried about getting the program pages out, just put out a blast on the USTA and, boom, we all got it.”
It could be a big day for Burke with horses in 12 of the 16 races on Hambletonian Day, including Railee Something, the 7-2 second choice in the Hambletonian Oaks.
Right after the races Burke will be heading out of town for his son’s bachelor party. Hopefully, with many things to celebrate.