TRAINER Liam Burke enjoyed a brilliant double with the victories of Rebel Early and Heliko Conti last weekend.
Since the Conna-based handler took out a license in the mid-1980s the presence of Fairhill butcher and businessman Jerry Nolan was by his side until his unexpected passing before Christmas. Nolan was known the length and breadth of the country in greyhound and racing circles and a hugely popular figure.
So the victory of his horse Rebel Early was an emotional success for connections and the Nolan family was represented at the winner’s enclosure by his brother James.
Among the many well-wishers on the day was jockey Rachael Blackmore who had ridden in the Nolan colours on many occasions. For Liam Burke, this was certainly a day of mixed emotions as he reflected on the many great days the pair shared together from Mallow to Down Royal and every racecourse in between.
Burke said: "To have a couple of winners was fantastic but the victory of Rebel Early was certainly emotional for us all really. We met in the early '80s when I was riding on the point-to-point circuit and when I decided to take out a Trainers License Jerry was the first man to send me a horse in 1986. He was my backbone all the time.
"We had Thyne Again and he gave us some great days winning seven races and he brought us to Cheltenham. He won the Irish Arkle which is a Grade 1 and finished fourth at the festival. Jerry had great patience as an owner and punter and it didn’t matter if it was two years, he knew his patience would be rewarded.
"Above everything else he was a great friend who helped me out on so many different levels. He went about his business nice and quietly and helped out so many people over the years. We all like to win but Jerry was the best person I’ve known to accept defeat if it happened. He wouldn’t be looking to blame anyone and just looked forward to running the horse again the next time. He was so loyal and will be a huge loss to us all particularly his family and many friends across Cork city and beyond.”
The stars were certainly aligned for this victory and the testing ground conditions played to the strengths of Rebel Early who was ridden by another Cork man and rising star Darragh O’Keeffe.
"She ran a stinker the last day but Darragh seems to get a great tune out of her and has won on her twice now. He knows her well and the cheek-pieces made a big difference as she carried him and jumped for him today. She will probably go to Gowran next.”
Naturally, the team at Liam Burke’s were on a high after Mallow but then managed to win the bumper with Heliko Conti returned at 18/1 at Fairyhouse on Sunday. All the leading yards including Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliot were represented but this was no fluke according.
“We always liked him a lot and expected a very big run. It’s difficult to find a horse that can compete with the big boys but this lad has plenty of gears. Hopefully, we can hold on to him and go for a winners bumper. He’s a very good jumper so fingers crossed he can stay sound. It was certainly a great weekend as Finny Maguire is another Cork man and also a very talented jockey.”
As well as being a hugely successful trainer Liam Burke took the decision and was granted a license to ride in bumpers last summer.
“It was just a mad notion and I’ll be 65 in March. The owner of Dawn Run Mrs Hill won a race at 63 so there is hope for me yet. Of course, plenty of people thought I was mad. I ride out every morning at home and to be honest I’m getting great enjoyment out of it.
"My training revolves around a good bit of swimming and cycling at the gym in the Quality hotel in Youghal. I met Willie Mullins one day at the races and asked him to put me on one of his. We had a bit of a laugh but the phone call hasn’t come yet anyway.”
Finally as well as being a trainer, part-time jockey the charismatic Burke is also the father of leading jockey Jonathan who is going brilliantly this season over in England.
"He has 41 winners already this season which included a dead heat in a Grade 1 with Not So Sleepy in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. He’s avoided injuries which is so important in this game. Getting on those good horses is difficult over there but he’s having a good run and riding with plenty of confidence.
"Between the horses here at home, riding in bumpers and following Jonathan we have plenty to keep us busy.”