Jack Burke & Boujee Girl
For many of the participants in harness racing it is almost preordained at birth that they will be involved in the sport. For Jack Burke, he had no involvement until his 20s and now finds himself as General Manager of one of the biggest breeding operations in the sport, Winbak Farm.
A confirmed lover of the outdoors, Burke is about to embark on his first breeding season at the helm of the farm and is looking forward to the challenge. Just a couple of weeks prior to the February 16 opening of the breeding shed, he took the time to discuss his journey in the Standardbred industry.
How did your path in harness racing begin?
It started about 17 years ago. I was working in restaurants. I was kind of in school but not really enjoying it. My uncle [Joe Thomson] called me up and asked me if I wanted to do staking. I figured, sure, I could come down and put fence posts in the ground, but then I learned that meant a completely different thing.
You had no idea what your uncle did for a living?
I knew he had the financial company and the horse farm but I wasn't too into it. When he told me about it, I thought, I like being outside and I like animals, so I tried it and ended up loving it. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
You started at Winbak Farm in 2006. What was your first position and what did you know about breeding horses when you started?
I knew nothing. I worked a little with the broodmare crew at the start holding tails and Gunjan Patel, who is over at Hanover right now, she was doing our staking at the time and teaching it to me a bit so I could eventually take it over.
Your Winbak Farm bio says you've worked "in every division of the farm". How many different jobs does a breeding operation have?
A lot. I've worked in the training barn. I've most worked with the yearlings and I really enjoy it. I've worked in the broodmare department. I've helped out in maintenance. I think I've done everything except jump a stallion. Usually at that time of the year I'm doing staking or helping with the yearling department. I've seen it and know what it is about. I want to do it, just never have.
How did things change for you when Garrett Bell left in 2021 and you were lofted to General Manager status?
It was during sales season and a lot needed to be done. Once sales season ended and I started to get into the breeding stuff, it became different because there were a lot of things I didn't know the minutia of and I'm still learning it every day -- what needs to be done at this time or that time, who do I need to contact. It is still a learning process, but it is definitely slowing down a bit and not as reactionary as in the beginning.
As the calendar turned to February this week, breeding season will start for you shortly. Is that the craziest time of year to work at a farm?
Right now it is a bit difficult for us because we use the H2A program, which allows us to bring labor in from Mexico through the government for 10 months a year, and we lose 45 guys for two months. Normally they are back by February 1 but due to COVID they won't be back until February 11 [breeding season starts February 16 at Winbak]. I've never done a breeding season from the GM seat and I'm sure there will be some crazy times, but I have a great team around me and I'm not worried about it.
What kind of car do you drive?
Favorite dinner meal? Snack?
Sheppard's Pie; anything chocolate.
What is your favorite track to visit? Why?
I'd say The Meadowlands because they have the Hambletonian and it is such a fun event.
What is your favorite big event in racing? The Hambletonian?
Yeah, but I'll say that I haven't been to the Little Brown Jug yet, so I can't compare it to that.
How often are horses or racing on your mind?
There always seems to be something going on here, a phone call or an email that I have to answer, so it is all the time.
What is your favorite thing to do outside of the sport?
I like kayaking and reading.
Can you do both of those at the same time?
Yeah, I have. I like going kayaking here on the river at the farm. There are no rapids. I'll go out with the dog and we'll find a nice little spot all to our lonesome and just hang out for hours.
What is your favorite sport to watch? Team?
Hockey -- Philadelphia Flyers.
What is one thing about you most fans/bettors don't know?
Maybe that I didn't grow up in the industry and I got into it in my 20's.
What is one word that describes harness racing for you?
Caretaking. When I think of Harness Racing I think of this farm and when I think of the farm I think of the horses we take care of.
What was your best moment in harness racing?
I don't think I've had it yet. Maybe when Courtly Choice won the Jug, though I wasn't there. I was there when Muscle Hill won the Hambletonian. As far as success, I don't just think of the racing side. I think of the successes we have in the barn, getting mares in foals, training a yearling to stand up and getting them ready for the sales.
How has the breeding industry changed in your 15 years working at Winbak?
It is much harder to get qualified help. Every year there are fewer and fewer people available to come in and do the work and some don't even know anything about the work.
Where do you see Winbak in 10 years? Is the business model the same or evolving?
You always have to evolve. I don't see us changing too much but we are always looking to do things better. Like we had some people come in to look at our grass samples to see what they can do to help. We have been talking with Equitrace, which is a company that is integrating our horse farm systems with a friendly app they are using. So I see us on the same path but always trying to do better.
We've seen a clear resurgence in the breeding industry in terms of sales prices. Does that provide optimism that the sport is on the right path?
Anytime you have a yearling season like 2021 when everyone seemed to be having a great sale that is obviously going to provide optimism. I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic.
What is it like to work for Joe Thomson?
It is a whole lot of fun. He has a bunch of ideas, he loves his horses and he is passionate about it. You couldn't ask for a better owner.
If you had the power to change one thing in the sport, what would it be?
I'd get rid of the beards.
Is it even possible to get rid of the beards?
Anything is possible. It is whether people are willing to really go for it or not. You need a full buy-in from everyone in the industry.
How do you view the future of harness racing?
Optimistically, I hope, especially with the way things in Kentucky have gone. Pennsylvania is always a strong state, Ontario is still strong and Ohio has been great over the last few years. I think there is always a place for harness racing in the betting world and hopefully it keeps going that way.
Time for the stretch drive:
Best Driver: John Campbell
Lasix -- Yes or No?: I don't really have an opinion on the topic. Other parts of the world race without it but I do understand it has medicinal purposes that are useful for horses.
Favorite TV Show?: Letterkenny
Trotters or Pacers?: Pacers