The Brazen Mr. Burch

Arrogate will go into the Breeders’ Cup off a 10-week layoff. Frosted and Shaman Ghost will go into the Breeders’ Cup off a nine-week layoff. Melatonin will go into the Breeders’ Cup off a four-month layoff. Heck , if American Pharoah can win the Breeders’ Cup Classic off a  two-month layoff, why not take the cautious route?

It is that philosophy that best indicates how much training methods have changed over the years and how conservative trainers have gotten. Yes, I’m sure it has become tiresome to many to be reminded how infrequently horses race now compared to years ago and how trainers pass up preps for championship events and prefer to run their horses off long layoffs.

This is not the place to decide the merits or drawbacks of those methods. I could go back and write about the great Hall of Fame trainers who would have been aghast at such a timid approach to training and all the great Hall of Fame horses who often raced a week to three weeks between races throughout a good portion of the year without slowing down.

Instead of doing that, however, I am going to write about one trainer who not only embodied the spirit of training back in the 1950s, ‘60s and 70s, but took it to an even higher level with his daredevil approach to racing.

What made Elliott Burch such a great trainer is the fact that his seemingly audacious moves usually worked, resulting in numerous championships and three Horse of the Year titles, as well as his own election into the Hall of Fame and thwarting two Triple Crown attempts.

Burch himself couldn’t have had better training, being the son of a Hall of Fame trainer, the legendary Preston Burch, and the grandson of Hall of Fame trainer William P. Burch. But Burch wasn’t your typical old fashioned horseman, born into racing and working his way up from childhood as a stable boy and groom. He was a graduate of the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and Yale University, eventually serving with the United States Army Signal Corps during World War II and then working as a sports writer for the Daily Racing Form. He made for a dashing figure with his 6 foot, 3 inch frame and rugged good looks.

Burch finally decided to head for the racetrack in 1955, working for his father, who was training the powerful Brookmeade Stable of Isabel Dodge Sloane. In 1957, he took over the training of the Brookmeade horses when his father suffered a heart attack. In 1966, he became the private trainer for Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable, where he remained until 1977 before concluding his career training briefly for C.V. Whitney.

Burch’s most amazing feat was running in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Brookmeade’s Sword Dancer (second in both races, including a heartbreaking nose defeat in the Derby), Rokeby’s Quadrangle (fifth in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness), and Rokeby’s Arts and Letters (beaten in photos by Majestic Prince in the Derby and Preakness), and then winning the Belmont Stakes with all three horses, each of whom he prepped in the Met Mile between the Preakness and Belmont. Not only did each horse use the Met Mile, facing older horses, as a prep for the Belmont, Sword Dancer and Arts and Letters both won the Met drawing away by open lengths, while Quadrangle ran second behind the top-class 6-year-old Olden Times. In the Belmont, Arts and Letters ended the Triple Crown hopes of Majestic Prince, while Quadrangle did the same to Northern Dancer.

And to add to this remarkable feat, all three horses would go on to win the Travers, with Sword Dancer and Arts and Letters nailing down Horse of the Year honors by defeating older horses in the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup. The only thing preventing Quadrangle from completing the triple was the misfortune of running into Kelso and Gun Bow in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which he finished third each time.

This was only three examples of Burch stepping way out of the box. He would make a habit of it throughout his career.

Burch was not averse to trying his top dirt stars on the grass. When Sword Dancer was 4, Burch ran him in the United Nations Handicap against many of the best turf horses in the country, and the pocket-sized chestnut rallied from 10th, 15 lengths back, to finish second to top turf star T.V. Lark. One week later, Sword Dancer was back on dirt, winning the Woodward Stakes for the second straight year.

Although Arts and Letters had never run on grass, Burch and Mellon pointed him for, of all races, the prestigious Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in France. Unfortunately, the colt suffered an injury in the Californian Stakes and was retired.

At a time when Eastern-based horses rarely flew to California, Burch sent his hickory little gelding Fort Marcy to California an unheard of seven times, where he won the Sunset Handicap defeating California’s two best grass horses Quicken Tree and Fiddle Isle, finished second in the San Juan Capistrano, was beaten two noses in the Capistrano the following year, beaten a nose in the Century Handicap, beaten a neck in the Hollywood Invitational Handicap, and then was second to Hall of Famer Cougar II in the Capistrano and Hollywood Invitational, beaten a neck.

Fort Marcy also defeated the great Damascus in the 1967 Washington D.C. International and defeated French champion Miss Dan in the 1970 Washington D.C. International. He had the distinction of being voted grass champion three years apart, in ’67 and ’70, and became the first pure grass horse to be voted Horse of the Year in 1970. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998.

Burch also had no reservations about running fillies against colts, regardless of how overmatched they seemed and what titans of the Turf they were up against. As an example, he threw the book away when he ran his hard-knocking multiple stakes winner Amerigo Lady in the 1968 Suburban Handicap against the likes of Dr. Fager, Damascus, In Reality, and Bold Hour, where she managed to bring home a check, finishing fourth.

In 1972, Burch won the Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, Monmouth Oaks, and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes with Summer Guest. Three weeks after Summer Guest finished second to Susan’s Girl in the Beldame Stakes, Burch wheeled her back in the Woodward Stakes against stablemate Key to the Mint, Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge, and eventual champion older horse Autobiography. Summer Guest closed fastest of all to finish second to Key to the Mint, only to be disqualified and placed third.

In 1961, Burch ran his CCA Oaks, Acorn, Spinster, Frizette, and Gardenia winner Bowl of Flowers against Belmont Stakes winner Sherluck in the Roamer Handicap, and the half-sister to Graustark closed fast to be beaten two noses by Sherluck and multiple stakes winner Hitting Away.

Speaking of Key to the Mint, Burch again demonstrated his bold methods by running the 3-year-old half-brother to Fort Marcy, by Graustark, against older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap in early July and the Whitney in early August. All Key to the Mint did was win both races by two lengths, equaling the track record in the Brooklyn, and then captured the Travers and Woodward to nail down the 3-year-old championship over Riva Ridge.

It was obvious that Burch was a firm believer in taking advantage of the big weight differential between 3-year-olds and older horses early in the year before the major weight-for-age stakes.

Burch also had a knack for turning mediocre dirt horses into grass champions. Not only did Fort Marcy run in 15 maiden and allowance races on dirt, 13 of them in sprints, before trying stakes on the turf, Burch also did the same thing with Run the Gantlet. After trying turf and finishing second in two allowance races, the son of Tom Rolfe rattled off victories in the Tidal, Kelly-Olympic, and United Nations Handicaps, and Man o’War Stakes and Washington D.C. International to secure the grass championship.

For C.V. Whitney, Burch knocked off some of the nation’s top horses with State Dinner, who defeated Alydar in the Suburban Handicap, Exceller in the Century Handicap, and Dr. Patches in the Whitney and Met Mile.

Burch’s feats of daring, which resulted in 16 individual championships, will never be duplicated. Even at a time when trainers ran their horses regularly and often, Burch set new standards of chutzpah, taking chance after chance and doing the unthinkable, and being rewarded the vast majority of the time.

Yes, times have changed, and owners and trainers have changed. Burch and owners like Sloane, Mellon, and Whitney with their powerful private stables have become virtually extinct. Burch has been for the most part forgotten by today’s racing fans, and the more racing horses sparingly becomes the norm the farther back his memory fades, as do his fearless training methods. But once in a while we should be reminded of the exploits of trainers like Burch and the resilience of the Thoroughbred.

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