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BURKE SETS SINGLE SEASON EARNINGS RECORD, TOPPING PLETCHER’S $28.1 MILLION

Link to NY TImes Article

MANALAPAN, NJ – December 12, 2014 – With a victory by Appomattox in the sixth race on Friday night, December 12, 2014 at the Meadowlands, Ron Burke’s single-season earnings as a standardbred trainer surpassed thoroughbred trainer Todd Pletcher’s 2007 record total of $28,116,097.

Appomattox’s victory came in a $30,000 free for all trot. Burke trainees also picked up additional checks so that by the end of the night’s card, Burke had rung up a total of $28,145,885 with a couple of weeks remaining in the year.

Burke’s record-setting season was the focus of an article by Jerry Bossert for the December 13, 2014 edition of the New York Times


RON BURKE'S JOURNEY TO BECOME HARNESS RACING’S LEADING TRAINER
By JERRY BOSSERT DEC. 12, 2014, New York Times

When Ron Burke was young, he was afraid of horses. Now harness racing’s leading trainer, Burke has transformed himself into an intimidating force.

“I was scared to death of them, and that’s not a lie,” said Burke, who is 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds.

Burke’s father, Mickey, who owned car dealerships in the Pittsburgh area, began driving and training standardbreds as a hobby in 1956. In 1981, Mickey sold his dealerships and decided to focus full time on harness racing.

He made his share of mistakes, including providing inadequate fencing that often allowed the horses to get out.

“They’d get loose at the farm; I just call him and say a horse is loose, and he’d say, ‘Can you go catch him?’ and I said, ‘No shot,’ ” the younger Burke, 45, said. “I’d hide under my bed.”

One horse on the family farm in Canonsburg, Pa., Embassy Omega, had a particular impact on Burke, the only trainer who could manage to get into the stall with him.

“I was young and athletic, so I was able to move fast, and I learned I could do it and it gave me pride,” Burke said. “Ever since then, horses behave for me.

“Horses sense fear, and they knew I was the weakest link. I was the one they could shove out of the way and boss around. Now horses come to me and behave better because I’m totally confident and have no fear.”

Still, Burke never dreamed that he would become the first harness racing trainer to earn $100 million in purses won, a record he set in May.

Mickey was in charge of the family-run operation until he became seriously ill with Legionnaires’ disease in 2008.

“I thought I’d grow up to be a lawyer — that’s what my degree is in, prelaw — or sell cars,” said Burke, who received a political science degree from California University of Pennsylvania. “But basically I got pressed into this situation because they needed me, and now I love it.”

An important lesson from his high school football coach has resonated with Burke. His coach used to tell him that winning was always fun, but losing was not. Now Burke is stockpiling victories.

Since taking over his father’s stable in 2009, Burke has been the leading harness trainer in North America in both wins and money won, and has been the leading trainer at Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey and Yonkers Raceway in New York.

“That was one of the neatest things that I ever did,” Burke said of the harness record he set on May 17. “It’s cool to be the first at anything, so I was very proud of that.

“I’m hoping I’ll be harness racing’s first $200 million man.”

Burke is also aiming toward the North American record of $28.12 million in purses won in a year, set in 2007 by Todd Pletcher, a 47-year-old thoroughbred trainer who has earned a record six Eclipse awards as North America’s outstanding trainer. Entering Friday, Burke’s horses had won $28.08 million.

It is almost implausible that a harness trainer could attain such a mark. Purses in the sport are far smaller than those in thoroughbred racing.

“I think I have a good chance,” said Burke, who still lives in Canonsburg, just outside Pittsburgh, with his wife, Diane, and sons, Ryan and Bradley.

“It’s something I’d like to do because things like that, I don’t know if I’llever to manage to be in this spot again, but I said that last year, too,” Burke said, referring to his horses’ earning $22 million in 2013.

Accompanying Burke’s success have been accusations that he may be doing something illegal.

Although his horses have started more than 24,000 times since 2009, Burke’s record has only one blemish — a horse’s positive test for Oxycodone in 2011, later thrown out when the horse’s groom admitted to using the drug and handling the horse.

“The testing now is so unbelievable it’s impossible to use anything, and truthfully I have no desire to use anything,” Burke said. “I do well with the way I do it.”

Burke puts in long days. He typically gets up around 6 a.m. every day and goes to bed after midnight. Since September, Burke said, he has been on the road about 75 percent of the time, including making several six-hour drives to Meadowlands in New Jersey. He has won some of his biggest races there, including two Breeders Crown races — harness racing’s Breeders’ Cup equivalent — on Nov. 21 with Mission Brief and Sayitall BB.

Like Pletcher, Burke has a large operation across several states. When Mickey handed control to his son, the stable consisted of about 125 horses.

Now Burke trains about 225 horses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana and Florida, and has about 20 assistant trainers and 40 grooms. His brother and sister work for the operation, and his mother, Sylvia, 70, is the bookkeeper. His father still takes care of the unraced 2-year-olds in Florida.

Burke said that because of technology, he could watch all his horses compete on his phone, computer or the four high-definition televisions he set up in an office in his home. On most days, he has an average of 15 horses starting, and on some Saturdays, he can have 40 to 45 runners.

“I can enter horses into races right off my phone, and it basically changed my life because if I’m in a different time zone, I don’t have to get up at three in the morning to enter horses,” Burke said.

Some of Burke’s other stable stars in 2014 have included Sweet Lou, who is a contender for Horse of the Year, and the consistent Foiled Again,who Burke bought for $62,000 in 2008. Foiled Again is the career leader in harness racing earnings with $6,894,531.

Burke has come a long way from the young boy who hid under the dining room table when a horse got loose.

“Everybody finds their niche in life, and mine happens to be that horses do what I want them to do,” Burke said.
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