Karl Burke: Northern raider with Derby dream

The North has not won Epsom's big race since 1945 but the trainer of Libertarian aims to stop the rot. He tells Chris McGrath about the joy of contending again after the pain of a 12-month ban

He will descend upon Epsom, leafy margin of the capital, as some audacious raider from the northern hills – this hulking creature, who has already harried the elite from his own country and now pursues them to their last redoubt, where exquisites stroll around in top hats and buttonholes. And, on the face of it, the groundwork of Libertarian's bid to become the North's first Derby winner since Dante, in 1945, could hardly be more apposite.

For here he is, bounding over High Moor, with Wensleydale spreading out giddily beneath his rider as it does for the fighter pilots, whose glazed faces can sometimes be glimpsed through their cockpits as they fly past on a level with the gallop. Bolton Castle, quilted among meadows and woods, dozes in a distant pool of sunlight leaked from a low black roof of cloud. When he has finished his exercise, moreover, Libertarian returns down a lane of stone walls to Spigot Lodge – once home to The Flying Dutchman, the 1849 Derby winner whose match with Voltigeur at York was said to have drawn 100,000 spectators. Entering the gates, the giant colt's nostrils fill with a heavy odour of wild garlic from the adjacent woods.

But even as winner of Yorkshire's great Derby trial, the Dante Stakes itself, this must be the limit of condescension about his mission on Saturday. For he turns the corner and Spigot Lodge is revealed as a monument to the planning laxities of the 1960s – not to mention the careless stewardship of generations past, the place having long fallen derelict by the time a new house and yard were permitted to preserve a lamentable moment in architecture.

Nor, come to that, can those supervising his preparation quite share the pride that might infect an indigenous northerner here, even in producing a Derby outsider – as Libertarian admittedly remains against the unbeaten Irish colt, Dawn Approach. For Elaine and Karl Burke, who were raised in Rugby and arrived from Newmarket a dozen years ago, his emergence certainly reiterates what can be achieved in a region that has already celebrated Grand National success this spring. Far more fundamental, however, is the dismantling of a prejudice more specific and insidious than any the Turf's southern powerbase may vaguely nurse against the North.

For the very fact that Elaine still holds the training licence testifies to Karl's need, not so long ago, to clear his name of scandal. In 2009, days after a breakthrough Group One success with Lord Shanakill at Chantilly, he was suspended for 12 months by the British Horseracing Authority for "passing information" to a major investor in his business, Miles Rodgers. Unlike Rodgers – and several others, including Kieren Fallon himself – Burke had been spared a conspiracy trial, but he did share the initial ordeal of arrest in 2004.

The judge threw out the Old Bailey case before even hearing the defence, but Rodgers would ultimately be warned off by the BHA and Burke was given a year to reflect on what he now acknowledges as a misjudgement of evolving rules.

"The problem for people working in racing, and the problem the BHA ended up having, was the advent of Betfair," he says. "That created a different dynamic to an age-old game, really. And I can see why the BHA had to put something in place. On occasions the rules might seem pretty draconian. But I'm not going to bleat about being caught up in it – it was just unfortunate that it was around the beginning of it all, when they had to make a stand."

Elaine contrived to keep the rump of the business going. Her father, Alan Jarvis, is also a trainer and took over briefly; then the horses found refuge in a nearby yard, accompanied by Elaine as assistant. So long as Spigot Lodge was to remain licensed, meanwhile, Burke himself had not been allowed to live at home. He travelled, visiting friends and clients in Hong Kong and Australia, and finished off with a 2,500-mile, zigzag charity cycle ride between the nation's racecourses, from Perth to Newton Abbot.

"So it was a lot easier for me," Burke says. "Elaine and the girls were much more affected. We had 25 staff at the time, and couldn't just allow the whole thing to collapse. Elaine was desperately trying to keep things going, and I couldn't help her. She was very upset."

His own resentment is reserved, not for the BHA, but for those he considered "vindictive" in the media and his own professional community. "There were one or two people within the industry who stuck the knife in," he admits. "You get to know who they are, and that's fine – that's up to them, they don't bother me. Things come around, they'll want a favour off us some day, and I won't forget it. But the majority were very good."

Having built up a string of 100 horses, he suddenly found himself with around 30 – most of which were their own, a huge financial burden. But his previous patrons have shown their fidelity; and the sport as a whole, its clemency. John O'Shea, the Sunderland footballer, is among his owners and has also got Wayne Rooney involved. With the roster already back up to 65, Burke is drawing up plans to extend the stable.

"As far as training is concerned, in a bizarre sort of way I think the time away actually helped me," he says. "We'd been on an upward curve for a long time. But you get more and more horses, want more and more winners, and get carried away with that day-to-day grind. Basically it got me out of the rat race, knocked me off that treadmill. It made me sit back and be patient. We're a lot more measured in what we do now."

Libertarian himself always looked the type to profit from such circumspection. Certainly he never had the precocity to shine at a "breeze-up" sale – where the lots are galloped before auction – last spring. As such, Burke was able to buy him for 40,000 guineas. "He clocked the slowest time at the sale," Burke remembers. "But he was a lovely stamp of a horse."

He made his debut only five weeks before the Dante, beating three rivals in a Pontefract maiden. Things did not work out at Sandown next time, and he was duly written off against fancied runners from top stables at York. But after struggling early, he wore them all down in the long straight and promises to relish the extra distance on Saturday – even if the hill seems unlikely to suit him so well.

"He is a big unit," Burke admits. "But he's very athletic, very well balanced. He isn't the finished article. He's a raw, uncut diamond. And we're in the process of cutting and polishing him. Yes, ideally you'd love the Derby to be a month or six weeks away. But whatever happens, he has a future ahead of him."

Already the St Leger, Yorkshire's own Classic, beckons in September. In the meantime, Libertarian flies the flag at Epsom when Newmarket and Lambourn have failed to muster a more fancied colt between them.

Burke turned 50 the day after the Dante. It seems a long time, now, since his pursuit of Elaine at school; since watching Irish punters shouting at the ITV Seven in his father's pub. One of the regulars had a son who was a jockey, and helped to channel his interest. Burke would barely achieve journeyman status himself, as a rider, and could never have known the twists and turns ahead once he switched to training. But a pristine joy in his vocation has survived them all.

He had just finished his O Levels, and joined a small local yard. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he says. "Fourth of July 1979. I was in this caravan, a cockerel was crowing, the sun was shining. It was like that cornflakes advert: 'Wake up, it's a beautiful morning!' That's my abiding memory of starting work in a racing yard." He grins. "I did grow to hate that cockerel. But I still love those mornings."

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