Racing is the definition of a results-based business and trainer Karl Burke is reaping the rewards of being a serial winner.
A career-best 117 domestic winners in 2022 helped the Middleham-based trainer almost treble his previous best prize- money total to over £2.9 million.
When you throw in overseas successes, including victory for the Ryan Moore-ridden Al Qareem in the Group 2 Prix Chaudenay at Longchamp’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe meeting, the total slides smoothly north of £3m.
Consistent success in the 2022 two- year-old races, including Dramatised (Queen Mary Stakes) and Holloway Boy (Chesham Stakes) at Royal Ascot, also means Burke has more potential Classic contenders in his care than he has ever had in one crop before.
The stable’s momentum has been further fuelled by an influx of owners, including leading players from the Middle East headed by Sheik Mohammed Obaid, who first linked up with Burke when he bought Almohandesah, the first offspring of his 2015 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Postponed to score on the track.
They have added extra firepower to an established clientele that includes Steve Parkin’s Clipper Group Holdings, Middleham Park, Nick Bradley Racing, Highclere Thoroughbreds and Amo Racing. The result is that demand has outstripped supply. Despite erecting a further ten boxes to take the capacity of his Spigot Lodge stable to 139 boxes, Burke has found himself in a position he has never encountered before and one which goes against the grain.
Burke, who never envisaged numbers rising so high, explains: “For the first time ever we have turned down horses this year. We had to draw a line – we just couldn’t keep taking horses. No doubt some of them will be nice ones.
“We are full and there are still horses waiting to come in. I never wanted to get in this position. We have had a big influx of Middle Eastern owners on the back of the results we have had. When you are being sent the quality of animals we are, it is hard to turn them down.
“I thought last year’s bunch were very good and that’s how it turned out. Touch wood this year we have an even bigger team and some better-bred horses.”
Burke’s wife Elaine and daughters Kelly and Lucy play important roles at Spigot Lodge. The family set-up is a source of great pride for the trainer, all the more so because of the potholes in the road that he has overcome, which so easily could have proved deep inescapable craters.
In 2009 the 59-year-old was banned for a year for passing inside information to disgraced gambler Miles Rodgers. It was a shattering setback but one Burke, who spent much of those 12 months travelling, never shied away from and has candidly addressed.
His family kept the show on the road, even though the number of horses they trained plummeted to less than 30, with many of them their own. But surprisingly, former jump jockey Burke says that it wasn’t the most stressful incident of his training career.
I thought we might be homeless.
That came when, equity rich through Spigot Lodge but short of cash and needing to reinvigorate his business, he agreed to act as a personal loan guarantor for someone he had been introduced to by one of his owners.
Securing a short-term loan was designed to benefit them both, but when the other person welched on the deal, Burke was left high and dry and needing to pay back £130,000 pronto.
He recalls: “Mentally that was far more torture than getting the year ban. For those two or three months I thought we might be literally homeless.
“We had just got going with the horses running in Elaine’s name. I remember thinking if we could just get hold of £50,000 or £60,000 – that was the figure I had in my head – to keep things going and buy a couple more horses.
“Ironically, by the time the loan came through, I didn’t need the money because we were climbing back.
“But he didn’t pay it back – he still owes the money now – and it fell on us to do it. That was far worse than any BHA ban or bad publicity. To think after getting back going you had tripped yourself up.
“The only reason we managed to get out of it was we owned half the property across the road – Little Spigot. At the time, it was hard to sell but at the last minute we found a buyer.
“That saved us. That meant we could pay off the loan and release the tie which had been on this place.”
Having survived by the skin of his teeth, Burke then rebuilt, horse by horse, relying on an uncanny eye for a talented thoroughbred. The man who trained the brilliant Laurens to win six Group 1 races has consistently unearthed gems, retained a share in them and then been able to cash in when they are finally sold.
Horses like Quiet Reflection, bought for £44,000 at the breeze-up sales and sold for 2.1m guineas after top-level wins in the 2016 Commonwealth Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup, have underlined Burke’s knack of winning on the racetrack because he knows his way around the sales ring.
Before that there was Libertarian, the 40,000gns purchase whose brief six-race career included winning the 2013 Dante Stakes at York and finishing second in the Derby at Epsom before a lucrative sale to Godolphin.
Burke describes Libertarian as “probably the most important horse in my career” – the Spigot Lodge barn his exploits helped build bears his name. Burke says: “His influence on us was huge. When he was sold in 2013, that was the first time we got a bit of money coming through the system. It was the upward curve again.
“It was a shame really that he was only around for such a short time. To put it bluntly he was a pain in the arse on the gallops as a two-year-old. He was a bit of a boyo and we never ran him.
“But in February whatever you worked him with he would just stay with them and not turn a hair. He’d come in without a sweat mark on him.
“One day we took him to Southwell to see what he did away from home. He worked really well with some good old handicappers.
“It was the beginning of March and the next day was the closing day for Derby entries. I rang his owner Hubert Strecker and said, ‘I am going to say something stupid now’, but he was already reading my mind and said, ‘Derby?’
“His first run was at Pontefract at the beginning of April. The Middleham Open Day was a week before and the late [Racing Post reporter] Tom O’Ryan always used to come into the yard.
“I was excited about this horse. He was gorgeous-looking and I remember saying to Tom, ‘Come on, I will show you a really nice horse’. I said he goes to Pontefract next week and he will win there – and he could be a Derby horse.
“It was huge when he won the Dante. We went down to Epsom pretty bullish – we knew he was spot on – but the race didn’t quite pan out for us. He ran really well, but I think if you ran the race ten times, we would probably win it six or seven times.
“We ran him in the Irish Derby for Godolphin, who said win, lose or draw he was leaving us, but if I am honest the horse had had enough. The ground was too quick and he never ran a race.
“It was some ride with him, but it was start to finish from April to June. Three months and he was gone.”
The foundations and security Libertarian helped put in place have certainly been built on.
“I love buying horses,”
“I love buying horses,” Burke explains. “Probably my favourite part of the job is buying yearlings. That is 90 per cent of being a trainer.
“I love looking at how they move and visualising how they will be in six months or a year’s time.
“At the yearling sales I would never buy a horse just on the page, the model has got to match. I like looking at pedigrees and different crosses, maybe with a first- season sire or maybe you know
“You have a vision in your head about what a yearling will look like. Nine times out of ten, when you pull it out of the box, it doesn’t look like you had hoped but every now and then you see a
horse which matches your imagination and you go from there.
“Generally, my eye is still drawn to speed. Even staying horses need a certain amount of that.
“We still own a lot of our horses, but we didn’t buy as many this time round because I knew we were going to be sent plenty.”
If there is a colt in Burke’s care to go one better than Libertarian at Epsom in June it is Sheik Obaid’s Liberty Lane. An easy winner of a Nottingham maiden in October, he had York’s Dante Stakes in his sights after finishing a fine second on his seasonal return at Newmarket’s Craven meeting.
But the Spigot Lodge talent is stacked. New arrival Indestructible showcased his Classic credentials when taking the headline Group 3 Craven Stakes in decisive style for big-spending owner Kia Joorabchian.
Hopes are also high for Holloway Boy, Flight Plan, Electric Eyes, Lowther Stakes winner Swingalong, who ran third on her return in the Group 3 Dubai Duty Free Stakes, and potential Oaks prospects Bright Diamond and Novokai.
In the sprinting division, 2022 Gimcrack Stakes runner-up Marshman, already the winner of the Prix Sigy at Chantilly, and Cold Case, the Gimcrack third who won the Redcar Two-Year-Old Trophy, have the Commonwealth Cup on their agendas.
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint runner-up Dramatised has a return ticket booked to the US for this year’s meeting at Santa Anita, probably via the King’s Stand and Nunthorpe Stakes.
The nature of the pressure has changed for Burke. With more cash to spend at the sales, expectations have been raised.
“It is a different ball game now,” Burke acknowledges. Yet it is one he will relish playing over the coming months.
Horses in the middle bracket need more support
Prioritising prize-money for middle- ranking runners is what the BHA and racecourses should be concentrating on, Karl Burke believes.
The trainer said the situation the sport found itself in on Good Friday particularly highlighted the issue of the talent drain which needs addressing.
The decision to put up £200,000 for a mix of Class 5 and 6 races at Bath meant the track’s card was massively oversubscribed with 408 entries.
On the same afternoon at Newcastle’s AW Championships Finals day, races failed to fill despite over £1 million of prize-money being offered.
Burke says: “We all want good prize-money across the board, but I couldn’t understand the prize-money for those moderate horses at Bath.
“Most are running round for £3,000 or £4,000 maximum during the year. If you put on a £10,000 race those horses would have still turned up.
“It is the horses rated 75 to 90 that need as much support as we can give them. Those horses in that 80-85 bracket with potential – we are having to sell them. They are going out of the country
“If more money was put into that programme, you could give owners an incentive to keep them, or at least keep them for a little bit longer.
“It showed at the other end at Newcastle where those races didn’t fill because we haven’t got the horses any more.
“There will always be a glut of horses at the bottom end. It needs a bit of thought. The top horses are running for good money, maybe not the world’s best, but still good. It is the middle bracket really that needs some concentrated thought.”
Burke has contacted ARC, which runs both Bath and Newcastle, to discuss events.
He adds: “It is not just about Good Friday but supporting these [middle- rank] horses all through the season.
“Not all, but some will progress, yet we are selling them off. You also need to advertise what you are doing and give owners advance notice about what will be happening.
“That doesn’t mean in October but before the July sales, so people can say, ‘Hold on there is great prize- money available over the winter, let’s roll these horses on and see how far we can take them.’”