Now retired jockey Ken Pope (pictured) is the last jockey to land a city Saturday plonk on a Des Burns trained horse. Ken spoke exclusively to me the day after the racing industry was shocked at the sudden passing of Dalby based trainer Des Burns at age 59 - in February 2006.
With the sad and sudden passing of Dalby racehorse trainer Des Burns in February 2006, following a heart attack, the curtain came down on one of the last great old-fashioned trainers of Queensland.
In the fickle world of training racehorses, there are in my humble opinion primarily two criteria to gauge the ability of a racehorse trainer by. One must be the ability of the trainer to keep a horse at its peak for long periods of time. Many horses climb the summit of Mount Everest, but no sooner arrive there before they fall off the other side, seemingly straight into a crevasse. The top trainer keeps his or her horse peaked for prolonged periods – well in excess of his contemporaries. The other measure of a trainer’s ability must surely be the punt. The day that the trainer set their horse up for a race and the money goes on, barring bad luck, the horse needs to win.
Des Burns had those two aforesaid attributes, pretty much down pat, for well over a quarter of a century. His wonderful sprinter Sleep Walk bore testament to his trainer’s ability to keep a horse at its peak for long periods of time, as the galloper retired with a record of 34 wins from 78 starts. Included in those 34 wins were 19 Open company races and there were four city wins among his 34 victories. That’s not a bad effort by horse and trainer considering the crushing weights the horse was often asked to carry in his country and provincial assignments. That impressive CV allows Sleep Walk to be mentioned in the same breath in post World War 2 Queensland racing discussions as other great country sprinters like Mick’s Luck. He won an incredible 76 races and ran 61 minor placings from 176 starts in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. They certainly don’t make them like that anymore.
It is hard to imagine how Des Burns would have handled the glitz and glamour of today’s Magic Millions extravaganza on the Gold Coast each January, with its Sky Channel coverage and associated pre-race mainstream media hype. Personally, I think he’d have bought a carton or six and sat down with a few mates and enjoyed their company for an hour or two and would have given the television cameras a wide berth. But a bit over 27 years ago, he quietly and unassumingly went about his business and trained the Magic Millions 2YO quinella on January 7, 1988 when Semipalatinsk’s daughter Sea Cabin, ridden by the hoop they dubbed the “King of the Coast” - Ken Russell – beat a He Loves Me filly named Royal Devotion ridden by Larry Olsen. Sadly just over five years later Ken Russell would be killed in a race fall at Rosehill on 9/10/1993, whilst Larry Olsen had just two months earlier been the toast of a nation on the first Tuesday of November in 1987 when he won the Melbourne Cup aboard Kensei.
The 1988 Magic Millions in which Des Burns runners ran the quinella was only the second running of the Magic Millions – and it was the first year that colts and fillies had contested separate versions of the race.
Many years before that Magic Millions career milestone, Des Burns had trained a speedy sprinter called Todonic. By Star Kingdom’s 1961 foaled grandson Todwana, Todonic was bred by Dalby doctor Ian Keys and his wife. Well-known in thoroughbred racing circles, the Keys family operated Flatfields Stud at Dalby at the time and in later life stood three times Group 1 winner Kinjite at stud on their property.
Todonic was foaled on 1/12/78 and his best racetrack victory was undoubtedly winning the 1982 Group 3 J.T.Delaney Quality at Doomben. In an incredible coincidence, Todonic’s sire Todwana also won the Delaney Quality some 17 years earlier – in 1965. Todonic was also runner-up in the 1982 Weetwood at Toowoomba to Allandale King, which was steered by Kerry Smith. Upon his retirement, Todonic also stood at Flatlands Stud at Dalby where he sired the classy juvenile Ambahar to win the Listed Sir Douglas Wadley Stakes in 1996. Todonic passed away on Christmas Day 1998 aged 20. Todonic is certainly well worth profiling in detail in any tribute to Des Burns as the duo hold one record that has stood for the last 32 years - and it just might stand for the next 32 years. As at today, Todonic still holds the Ipswich 1100-metre track record which he set way back on 21/4/1982, stopping the clock with a sizzling run of 1.02.90. It remains to this day as the longest standing current Ipswich Turf Club track record.
On the subject of plonks, it didn’t matter whether the race was at Brisbane or Bedourie, the Gold Coast or Goondiwindi, bookies would need to be on their guard when there was a runner in the race trained by Des Burns. As a matter of interest, the last long priced plonk winner the Dalby based mentor had in town occurred less than seven months before his sudden passing. Prior to his victory at Eagle Farm racecourse on 23/7/05, Song Time opened at 50/1 in Darwin on race day. Back in 2005 there was none of this fixed odds betting days out from the meeting like there is now. Song Time was initially hammered in Darwin and then he was well backed again on course at Eagle Farm at odds varying between 20/1 and 33/1. From his inside draw, the horse was ridden perfectly by Ken Pope, sitting in the box-seat, third on the fence. On entering the straight Ken Pope extricated the horse into the clear and under vigorous riding Song Time fell in - in a big blanket finish. Des Burns had just landed a 50/1 into 20/1 go – again.
Now retired Sunshine Coast jockey Ken Pope who landed the Song Time plonk – and many others along the way with Des Burns trained horses - told me the day after the death of Des Burns in 2006, “He was the type of guy who’d do more for you than against you. He was a champion bloke and he really looked after me. He was very astute with a horse. It didn’t matter what price they were, when he put you on and said they’d win – they did”.
The latest apprentice to complete indentures with Des I fancy was former Dalby lass Rebecca Kirwan. Rebecca who is still riding, spent the last 2˝ years of her apprenticeship with Des. She told me the day after his passing in 2006, “He was a fair boss, but he was really more of a mate. He was always there for any member of his staff and was always willing to offer advice if you asked him”.
On 16 February 2006, as a mark of respect for Des Burns lifelong support of the Ipswich Turf Club, that club had jockeys in Race 3 on the program - the Yalumba Wines Class 1 - wear black armbands. You see Des had nominated his galloper Westdrums for that race, but had passed away suddenly before acceptances were taken. Des’ brother – Deagon based trainer Geoff Burns - told me at the time, “Des won two or three trainers premierships at Ipswich, even though he was based in Dalby”.
At the Dalby Picnics in 1985 Des Burns achieved something that many trainers can only dream of happening in their lifetime, as he trained the first four across the line in the Penfolds wines sponsored race – the Ladies Bangle – when Nugget Rush beat stablemates Bell Khan, Khale May and Royal Change. And amazingly Nugget Rush won two races on that particular day. But if you thought training the first four across the line in a race was pretty amazing – then Des Burns could even trump that one. On that particular day Dalby Picnics day in 1985 Des trained all six winners at the meeting. His winners were Tirrinvan (even money), Pandour Khan (7/4 on), Kanga Khan (8/1 on), Mexico Way (6/1) and Nugget Rush (two wins - at 6/1 and 6/4). To anyone that knew Des, it wouldn’t be rocket science to imagine that there would have been some fun in the old corral that night.
Upon his sudden passing Desmond Mervyn Burns was survived by his wife Shirley and their children Shane, Dallas, Darren and Sharlene. He was cremated in a private ceremony at Toowoomba on Thursday 16/2/06 and a memorial service was held at 1.30pm the following afternoon at the Bunya Park racecourse in Dalby - over the road from where he lived.
One of three sons and two daughters born to his parents Mervyn and Mavis Burns, Des had moved to Dalby with his family as a boy of 10 and he proudly called the town home for the rest of his life.
The name Des Burns was respected by fellow trainers, bookmakers, jockeys and punters alike. In an industry that spits out people like potatoes going through the chipping process, to have simply earned that respect is a big rap in itself, by any fair person’s assessment.
Last Saturday at the Dalby racetrack they ran the annual Des Burns Memorial race as part of the TAB program. When I saw that race name I thought that it was hard to believe that it has been nine years since the sad news broke of the big fella’s passing. His son Shane had a horse that he trains in the race. As happens in racing Shane had to settle for second placing and whilst second isn’t as good as first, it’s better than third. And in any event Shane has youth on his side and there’s always next year to win the race named in his father’s honour, or the year after that.
Today life goes on – for that is what Des would want - and a race meeting will be conducted somewhere or other, but a big bloke from Dalby that many of us liked to have a drink and a yarn with, is missing. At just 59 years of age, we could have surely reasonably expected that Des would still have been in our midst. Sadly fate never intended it so.
From a personal viewpoint, Des Burns was a man whose company I thoroughly enjoyed as we’d have a cold drink at a bar at a racetrack around South-East Queensland. It’s hard to believe it’s nine years since we’ve been able to rest an elbow on the bar and have a drink, a yarn and a hatful of laughs at a bush track like Esk. I guess they truly were “the good old days”.
Today on www.brisbaneracing.com.au there’s the first of two montages of photos from Doomben last Saturday. On www.sydneyracing.com.au it’s coming up to Inter Dominion time, whilst on www.melbourneracing.com.au Victorian racing is perused.