Written by: Hayley Morrison

A chat with newly minted trainer Nigel Burke.

Thumbnail for Faces at the Races: Nigel Burke

Hayley Morrison Photo

“Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it. Also, make sure that you love this sport, because that’s what keeps you getting up every morning to come here seven days a week,” said newly-minted Woodbine trainer Nigel Burke.

The 30-year-old horseman born in Barbados and raised in Jamaica began his career in the industry more than a solid decade ago. Burke’s racing roots trace back to a steady set of horseman on both his mom and dad’s side of the family. His father, Ron Burke, had a successful career as a horse trainer and now currently works as a jockey agent at Woodbine.

While his dad has, without a doubt, influenced his career choice, Burke also gives credit to his uncle Anthony Nunes, a horse trainer in Jamaica, for helping him find his initial footing in industry.

“My first involvement in racing would have been when I was about 10 years old. My mom’s brother, my uncle, started taking me to the racetrack on a Sunday and I would ride the horses from the stable to the track and then jump off and let the jocks go and work them. Funny enough, I wanted to be a jockey, but that went through the door when I was about 12,” said Burke who, not long after, found himself immersed within the daily workings of the racing world.

“It started off just being a hobby, something to do on the weekends. So I wasn’t per say getting paid, I was getting paid in experience (rather) than with cash. My first full-time job would have been here at Woodbine when I was 18. It was a summer job with Roger Attfield. I spent eight years with him and one year with Brian Lynch. That seems to sum up how I got more involved in it — from hot walking then into grooming and then being an assistant.”

Working eight years on and off with Attfield between 2006 until last year, Burke credits the Hall of Fame trainer for not only teaching him the ropes but also helping him understand the importance of training quality racehorses.

“People have asked me what I learned from Roger Attfield in the time that I worked there and this might sound funny but how to train a good horse. You can say that anybody could train a good horse but that’s not really the case. Yes, you do need horses to be a good trainer, but you also have to keep them going and Roger’s record speaks for itself, with horses like Musketier who won the Singspiel as a 10-year-old and it’s a graded stakes. I was able to be around not only experienced people, but horses that were capable of winning the big races.”

While he may be a new trainer to Woodbine, Burke did work as a trainer about four years ago back in the Caribbean. “I went to Trinidad and was there for two years and I had success there. We won a personal triple crown, but not the triple crown with the same horse — two horses won all three legs.”

For the last couple of years, Burke trained horses in Jamaica before deciding to return to the Ontario oval last season. Grooming horses and working under Attfield’s tutelage once again, Burke had his eyes set on running his own barn this season.

“I worked over here in the winter in the brutal cold and I knew Paul Mouttet and Mike Stone from Trinidad and they had horses at the farm that I was at. I was lucky enough that they gave me a shot with some of their horses. Right now I have four (horses), all four are owned by them and they were the ones willing to give a young trainer a chance.”

A boutique outfit, Burke’s sole runner this season has been a 2-year-old bay filly named Victor’s Real Life. The daughter of Victor’s Cry has three lifetime starts to her name and helped the young trainer hit the board first time out in a maiden special weight back in July. His other trainees include Honor the Causeway, Irish You Luck and Speedy Trust.

A horseman through and through, Burke doesn’t sugar coat anything about his job.

“Having only four it makes sense to do everything yourself besides ride them. So you tend to be doing a bit of everything you’ve done over years, you’re still hot walking and you’re still grooming. The greatest difficulty is to learn patience, especially having four 2-year-olds. Patience is your greatest achievement.”

Given his patient and perseverant attitude, the young trainer not surprisingly tackles the last question with ease.

What do you love about your work?

“So you know how you have people that have their special place that they will go to and they will go think about life or meditate? The racetrack is my place. It’s my sanctuary. It’s not necessarily the races, what it is, is that I like to be here at feed time and I like to hear when it’s all quiet and all you can hear is the horses and you could just sit down there for hours and just listen. As much as they can’t talk, you hear a whole lot. So that’s what it is, more the love of the horses and actually bringing them to a finished product and a finished product is a race.”