Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Burke Taking Advantage Of American Opportunities

It’s not her first time beneath the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, but jockey Julie Burke is definitely glad to be back in the saddle for two mounts there this weekend. With nearly 50 jockeys named on horses each day and trainers shipping horses in from all over the country to compete in full fields, it won’t be easy to find the winner’s circle.

“Churchill is looking extra tough,” Burke said earlier this week. “The (horse) on Saturday I like, he was an allowance horse, he’s won allowance races, but I think he’ll run good. He’ll be there the last furlong, there or thereabouts. He’s 20-1, but he’ll run better than a 20-1 shot.”

Burke finished fifth at final odds of 35-1 aboard Tommytom for trainer John Ennis in Saturday’s sixth race, a starter allowance contest.

“The one on Sunday, it’s a first-time starter,” Burke continued. “Joe Deegan’s a pretty shrewd trainer, so he usually has them ready to go. He usually puts them in the right spots.”

Native Charm ran eighth in Sunday’s first race, a maiden claimer with a tag of $30,000.

Last fall, Burke won three races at Churchill Downs during the November meet. The victories were a big deal for the Irish native normally based out of Belterra Park, but after the coronavirus crisis Burke is thrilled to just be back to racing.

“When Turfway shut down (on March 25), I was like, ‘Things are getting bad,’” Burke remembered. “I went over to Margaux Farm, and I started going out there and I was getting on 12 or 13 horses a day. It was nice to get away from the drive and racing, so I enjoyed it… I only finished up there last week, when I saw Churchill was definitely going ahead. So, I’m fit and ready to go.”

Racing in Ohio is cleared to begin without spectators next Saturday, and though the track may take a few extra days to get rolling, Burke is excited to see racing start up again. Riding at Churchill this weekend, with the tough jockey colony and even tougher races, reminds her a little too much of the challenges she faced in Ireland and England during her apprenticeship.

“You can’t escape from the big guys in Ireland, it’s like Churchill or Saratoga every day,” Burke explained. “At least over here, there’s so many tracks you can go to. There’s so many more opportunities here. There, you have to compete with the best every day.

“The money over here is just crazy, compared to England anyway. There’s so much more racing.”

Being able to travel from her base in Lexington to Belterra, Indiana Grand, Churchill, Keeneland, or Turfway Park, all in under three hours, is a pretty good deal, Burke said.

“There’s a lot of horses here (in Lexington), and you can ride a lot,” Burke said. “There’s not a lot of jockeys that live here, they all kind of live where the tracks are, so I get around to the local trainers.”

Since moving her tack to the United States in the summer of 2015, Burke has won 131 races and earned over $2.3 million in purses. It’s been rewarding to make her living with horses, following in the footsteps of her family back home in County Tipperary.

Her father and brothers mostly train horses for jumps racing, and Burke basically grew up in the sport.

“I was kind of in horses all my life,” Burke said. “I always wanted to be a jumps jockey, but I’m too small to do that – there’s a certain weight you have to be, to get a license, and I’m only 5’1”. If I put on that weight, I’d just be a ball up there!”

After attending the racing school in Ireland, Burke rode for a year before moving to England. She won a scholarship there for apprentice jockeys in 2011, but when she lost the weight allowance things started to slow down.

Sophie Doyle was a friend of hers, so Burke decided to visit the U.S. and see how the racing scene looked on the other side of the pond. It didn’t take long for Burke to start pursuing a visa. She had to go back to Ireland to apply for the professional sports visa, a process that took nearly seven months.

Burke has been pleased with her reception as a female jockey, for the most part. Early on, there were a few minor issues with other male jockeys, but things have settled down as she has made herself a niche on the Southern Ohio/Northern Kentucky circuit.

“I think if you can ride, (trainers) don’t have a problem,” Burke said. “There’s some people I know that don’t ride girls, and that’s fine. But most of them are pretty good – if you can get the job done, that’s all that matters.”

She’s also gotten into a few American sports, like baseball.

“I just like watching sport, really,” said Burke. “I’ve started playing golf this year, I’ve been playing a lot of golf during quarantine. I like watching the American games, and went to some games in Lexington, some of the (University of Kentucky) football games. I really like baseball; I watch the (University of Louisville) Cards baseball.”

Burke won at a 15 percent clip over the turf in 2019, compared to nine percent on the dirt.

“I really like the tactics of racing,” Burke explained. “I like grass racing the best. You have to be more patient on the turf, and I suppose you have to ride your race more. Dirt you just jump and get your horse into a rhythm, but grass racing you have to save as much energy as possible; it’s just more tactical.”

Her P-1 visa expires after this year, but Burke expects to try to renew it and keep riding in the U.S. for as long as she’s healthy enough to do so.

“I would like to get into bloodstock when I do retire, but for now I’m still loving riding,” Burke said. “So I’ll keep it going for as long as I can, tilI I get fed up with it!

“We have a few of our own broodmares at home, so we’ve always had some around. I like that part of it. I like, even when I’m riding, looking at their breeding and learning new sires. I like getting the (sales) catalog books and just looking through all the breeding. That might be something when I stop riding, someday.”

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