Ron Burke, the $100 million harness racing trainer

Use of technology paves the way to record earnings for local trainer


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Ron Burke never has to miss a race.

As he stands in his office at his Canonsburg home, he is surrounded not only by an abundance of plaques and trophies -- testaments to an unprecedented run in harness racing for six years and counting -- but also by two televisions, one atop the other, mounted on the wall next to his desk.

Burke's horses are done for the day, so only the bottom TV is in use; he's watching a race in which he has no involvement at the nearby Meadows racetrack. Earlier in the day, he and longtime friend and horse owner Mark Weaver watched one of their horses, Somesizesomestyle, win a race at the same venue.

That's not to suggest that Burke's TV limits him to only watching races at The Meadows, a 10-minute drive from his house. He can watch any racetrack in the country from the comfort of his office, a point he begins to make as he grabs the remote and calls up the channel guide.

"Actually in North America; I get Canada, too," he said, correcting himself. "Also, I can get them on the computer, so I can watch anywhere that I'm racing."

In case two TVs and a computer in one room aren't enough, he can watch almost any track on his phone as well. To the average person -- heck, even to the average horse trainer -- that might seem excessive. But for Burke, the trainer of about 250 horses at six stables in four states, it is necessary, and it's one factor that has helped him become the first trainer in his sport's history to accumulate $100 million in purses.

Since Burke's first full year after taking over for his father, Mickey, in 2009, Jimmy Takter is the sport's second-leading money winner at $37.5 million, about a third of Burke's total. In 2013, Burke earned $23.23 million in purses, becoming the first trainer to pass the $20 million mark in one year.

The best might be yet to come for Burke, who has seen his total starts and first-place finishes rise every year since 2011. It's what has happened to this point, however, that has made it all possible.

Broke or doing really well

Burke Racing's rise to the top began, fittingly, with a gamble.

Ron and Mickey decided to take a chance by training horses in a manner no other trainer had pursued before in their sport. The idea was to apply a thoroughbred approach -- training multiple horses at multiple stables -- to standardbred racing.

"We could have wound up broke or doing really well," Burke said. "Luckily, it ended with us doing really well."

Just how well they would end up doing, neither Ron nor Mickey could have possibly imagined at the time. Changes to the sport have made more money available than ever, none more prominent than the legalization of slot machines at Pennsylvania racetracks in 2004.

The slots brought more people and more money into the tracks and, as the years went by, Burke was training more horses than any other trainer in the country -- the perfect storm for reaching record levels of success.

Even more helpful was the assistance of Weaver and Mike Bruscemi, who together own a stake in the majority of Burke's horses. When Burke met Weaver in 2003, the two had similar goals -- Burke had grown up around horses; Weaver was a gambler who "caught the bug" in Southern California before attending races at The Meadows.

"We were in similar places going through our life: Both had young kids, both wanted to get bigger, both knew what we wanted to do for a living and the opportunity kind of presented itself," Weaver said.

Neither envisioned owning or training 250 horses, though. Burke maintains that, as his number of horses grew steadily, he realized the work wasn't exponentially harder -- if he was going to talk to a blacksmith about a horse, for example, he could talk about 40 horses. His friends and family, however, cite a keen attention for detail as a reason for his success.

Mickey learned about his son's knack for detail when he challenged Ron to recall the specifics of a novel after noticing how fast he had read it. The book was by James Patterson -- the two share a love for mystery novels -- and Mickey thought Ron had skimmed through the pages.

"I said, 'Ronnie that's impossible, you cannot read that fast,' " Mickey recalls. "And he said, 'Dad, open the book to any page and ask me whatever you want,' and he knew it. He just has a way of absorbing everything."

That kind of memory serves you well when you're responsible for the development of 250 animals, and Burke insists he knows every one of them. As for how he can manage all those horses, Burke again cites the importance of technology. Not only can he watch his horses from his office, but he also can use the computer to enter them in races as well.

"Technology came around the same as I did. You couldn't have done the things we're doing now 20 years ago because it was impossible," Burke said.

"I can see my horses at the barn in New Jersey; we have 16 cameras in there. I can see them all right now. It's completely different: communication, technology, everything."

Learning to love horses

When Ron was young, Mickey installed a split-rail fence to confine the family's horses -- which, he admits, is the "dumbest thing you can do" as a horse owner.

Needless to say, the fence didn't quite do the job, and the horses would get out from time to time. Back then, Mickey owned a car dealership -- he did that until 1982, when he began raising horses full time -- so his family would call to tell him which horses fled.

One particular call, he remembered, came from Ron, who was hiding underneath the dining-room table -- his usual retreat during such escapades.

"Truthfully, I didn't start messing with horses until I was 12, and, at first, I was scared to death of them -- scared to death," Ron said. "People start out loving horses then learn to love racing, I loved racing and learned to love horses."

Ironically, the horse he credited with helping him overcome his fear was too mean for anyone else to handle. His name was Embassy Omega, and, although nobody else could deal with him, Burke approached him without fear. To his surprise, the horse listened to him.

"I started to think, 'I seem to have an affinity for this,' " Burke said. "But it's funny, I didn't fear him. I've found to this day, as long as you don't fear them you'll get along better with them. They can sense it."

Once the fear was gone, the love began -- and Ron Burke loves horses. Ask him how he can tell 250 horses apart, and he'll ask you how you can tell humans apart. To him, it's the same concept.

He applies that love to his training as well, which he said "isn't rocket science."

While training standardbreds requires a balance between keeping horses healthy while also pushing them as they learn to keep pace and go fast, Burke simplifies it with one rule: Do what's best for the horse, and, in most cases, you'll be doing what's best for yourself.

No horse has been better for Burke than Foiled Again, who, at 9 years old, became the richest standardbred in North American history with more than $6 million in career purses. What's even more impressive than his career totals is the age at which he is performing at such a high level. It's unprecedented in the sport and it's the reason Burke believes Foiled Again will still be racing at 14.

"Anything we've asked him to do he's done it and done better," Burke said. "He loves to race, he loves what he does. You can tell when you take him out in the morning."

Family accomplishment

Burke has established a hierarchy of those who are essential to the barn's operation, and he's not at the top.

"I always say, when me and my dad are gone there are still 20 of us that do what we do," he said. "There's only one person that does what my mom does, she runs the business. When she's gone, we really don't have a backup, that's the difference."

Mickey Burke concurs with his son, although he adds daughter Michelle to that list as well.

Harness racing has truly become a family business for the Burkes. Mickey Jr., the oldest of five children, is in charge of a barn and does a lot of traveling with Ron. Michelle runs a barn, too, but tries to stay in Pittsburgh to be with her family. Ron's mother, Sylvia, does all the bookkeeping, and his wife, Diane, records what horses go in and out of the stable and sends payroll info to her mother-in-law.

Two more Burke children -- Melissa, Michelle's twin; and Becky, the youngest of the five -- have chosen to work in the health field, but they, too, own horses.

"As much as I'm proud of it as a personal accomplishment, I'm also proud of it as a barn and family accomplishment," Burke said of reaching $100 million.

At age 44, Burke hopes that $200 million could be next. The first $100 million, after all, took him about six years -- if he can duplicate that efficiency, he'll be 50 when he reaches the next milestone.

That's not to say he will do this forever. He doesn't envision himself training horses in his 70s like his father, although he does have interest in someday training overseas, which he admits would be a welcome challenge.

"For me, it would really be a struggle, but I like the struggle," he said. "When this quits being a challenge, then maybe it'll be time for me to do something else."


Jourdon LaBarber: jlabarber@post-gazette.com and Twitter @jourdonlabarber.

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