John Burke became in 1976 just the fifth jockey in history to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year, on Royal Frolic and Rag Trade respectively.
Before the Cheltenham National Hunt festival that year the 86-year-old Sir Edward Hanmer queried whether his seven-year-old chaser Royal Frolic was too young to take on the cracks in the Blue Riband of steeplechasing, the Gold Cup. To which Fred Rimell, his trainer, replied diplomatically, "Well, none of us is getting any younger, sir, and I think he should take his chance." Taking the last in grand style, John Burke and Royal Frolic strode up the hill to pass the post with five lengths to spare.
Burke was born in 1953. A natural horseman, he started to ride in point-to-points and as an amateur rider under rules with so much success that in 1974 he turned professional. Almost immediately he succeeded Ken White as stable jockey to the champion trainer Fred Rimell.
He was an immediate success, taking the SGB Chase in 1974 on Rough House and the Great Yorkshire the following year on the same horse. In 1976 he won the Welsh National on Rag Trade, a large clumsy horse owned by "Teasy-Weasy" Raymond, the hairdresser and punter. Rag Trade developed heat in his off foreleg after winning that race, but Rimell decided to run him in the National at Aintree. Red Rum, bidding for his third National victory, was second favourite but on this occasion it was up to the Rimells to set records by winning their fourth Grand National.
Mercy Rimell, talking for her late lamented husband Fred, said: "John Burke rode a blinder. He came into the last, nicely poised behind Eyecatcher and Red Rum, who took the fence together. He collected Rag Trade, balanced him and drove him up to the leaders. At the elbow on that long run-in he was fractionally in front of Red Rum and our horse ran on splendidly to win by two lengths. No one can deny that Rag Trade fully deserved his success."
Burke rode the first of his 196 winners, Some Man, at Ludlow, in 1973. In 1976, the year of his Gold Cup-National double, he also took the Game Spirit Chase at Ascot on Uncle Byng. The following season he was well clear in the National on Andy Pandy whenthey took a spectacular fall at Bechers Brook second time round. But Burke steered that same topping, short-backed little horse to victory in the Whitbread Gold Cup. In 1977 Burke was also lucky enough to partner that great Rimell hurdler Comedy of Errors to win the first of two consecutive National Spirit hurdles at Fontwell. The following year he won the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on Connaught Ranger In the film Champions (1983), the story of Aldaniti and Bob Champion's heroic victory in the National, Burke rode Aldaniti in the jumping scenes. He retired in 1985 but kept close to horses and was still riding out for John Christian, who now runs the old Rimell stables at Kinnersley.
John Burke exemplified the best qualities of British steeplechasing. And it is to be hoped that at least one racecourse will perpetuate his name in a good tough steeplechase typical of the man himself.