by Evan Pattak
WASHINGTON, PA, May 9, 2024  — When trainer Mickey Burke, Sr. died at 87 on May 6, his passing inspired tributes and memories throughout harness racing — especially from members of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association (MSOA), with whom Burke battled, collaborated and socialized throughout his career at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows.

 

The picture that emerges from those comments is a man of many parts — a patriarch, a fierce competitor, a compassionate and generous philanthropist and a natural-born raconteur.

 

He was competitive; that can be seen with even a cursory look at his training statistics. After selling his car dealership and changing careers to training, he necessarily started small, in tiny quarters tucked deep into The Meadows backside. Ultimately, his horses won 3,167 races and $35.4 million in purses since the inception of official trainer statistics in 1991. Burke was named the 2006 Trainer of the Year, and he was the first trainer in history to surpass $10 million in purses in a single season.

 

A patriarch? Every member of Burke’s immediate family — wife Sylvia; sons Ron (who took over Burke Racing’s training duties in 2009) and Mickey, Jr.; daughters Michelle, Rebecca and Melissa — is involved with the stable or other harness racing ventures; as a group, they’ve taken Burke Racing to new heights. It has led all training stables in wins and purses every year since 2005.

 

“I’m part of a harness racing family, so I know both the challenges and the satisfactions,” said Lisa Dunn, president of the MSOA Board of Directors. “I think it’s fair to say the Burkes are one of the most successful harness racing families ever. Mickey and his brood took the concept of the ‘harness racing family’ and cranked it up a notch.”

 

Less well known, perhaps, is Burke’s willingness — eagerness, in fact — to swap stories with his backside buddies. Rich Gillock, retired trainer and former MSOA board president, discovered that trait during the lunches they enjoyed together through the years.

 

“He was a storyteller,” Gillock said. “He could talk to you. “I’m sure he was good as a car salesman because he really could talk to you.”

 

Given the slightest encouragement, he would regale anyone with an old favorite or a fresh tale.

 

“The best thing about him was his good stories,” recalled Pastor Joe DiDonato, Meadows track chaplain. “He was a storyteller. It didn’t matter how busy he was; he gave you a story. He always had time to talk to you. Mickey was one of the most beloved horsemen at the Meadows.”

 

Yet Burke’s most profound and lasting impact was through his kindness and charitable acts.

 

“Mickey was always a great friend to his fellow Meadows horsemen,” said Kim Hankins, MSOA executive director. “He always contributed to MSOA events and was especially generous in his support for our scholarship programs for our younger generation. Our sincerest condolences to the Burke family.” 

 

His kindness touched organizations and individuals, including veteran trainer Bill Bercury, who recalled that, en route to his current success, he began humbly with a lone horse that he trained and drove.

 

“The horse was named Away Goes Charlie — this has to be 30 years ago,” Bercury said. “Mickey approached me and asked if I minded if he claimed the horse. I said I’d appreciate it if he didn’t. And he didn’t. So over the years, I never claimed any of those wonderful horses he put on the track because he didn’t take mine.”

 

Veteran trainer Randy Bendis also remembers Burke’s kindness.

 

“Back in the ‘80s, I drove for him a little,” Bendis said. “He put me on a mare named Gladiola Bay, and we had some success with her. Long after I stopped driving, every time we saw each other, Mickey would greet me with ‘Gladiola Bay! You drove her well.’”

 

On the organizational side, he was a longtime supporter and board member of New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program and was serving on the board at the time of his death.

 

“I’m just heart broken,” said Dot Morgan, founder and executive director of New Vocations, which retrains and rehomes retired Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds for new careers. “The Burke stable sent us some of their horses — even some million-dollar winners. Mickey and Ronnie have always been so generous in their support.”

 

So significant has been the financial backing of the Burkes that Burke Racing Stable is among 15 people and stables named Foundation Donors. To honor them, New Vocations has erected lawn jockeys at its Lexington headquarters and painted each in the colors of a Foundation Donor. The Burke Stable lawn jockey is the only one honoring a Foundation Donor from harness racing.

 

“As we both grew older,” Morgan remembered, “Mickey once said to me, ‘Dot, I want to stay on the board as long as you’ll have me or until you die or I die.’”

 

Prophetic words from one of harness racing’s most successful, influential and kind-hearted horsemen.