The film Casablanca ends with Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) saying to the Vichy Captain (Claude Rains) “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” For the past couple of years there was a similar relationship between trainer Kieran Burke and racehorse owner Anthony Knott.
That’s all over now, and Burke has asked Knott to find a new trainer for his star horse Hunt Ball. The two were up before a British Horseracing Authority disciplinary panel last Friday following a stunt at the Cheltenham Festival in which Hunt Ball raced with a prominent Paddy Power logo on his backside. The BHA fined Hunt £4,000 and Burke £1,000, although the incident won’t cost either of them a penny, as the bookmaker, well aware of the cheap publicity it has gained, is picking up the tab.
Burke says this isn’t a knee jerk reaction to one incident, but that things have been building up for a while, although he didn’t identify any other specific issues that have come between him and Knott. He said, “Basically I’ve asked Mr Knott to take away the horse. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and I have done it to forward my career and not be held back. There was the Paddy Power affair and a few other things, and I had just had enough. I am absolutely gutted to have lost Hunt Ball, he has been brilliant for me in terms of raising my profile, but at the end of the day you have to look after number one, and my best interests are my career and my business so I think I have made the right move. It was not something done on a whim, it was definitely well thought about.”
Hunt Ball was undoubtedly one of the racing stories of the 2011/12 season. In that year, Burke’s first as a trainer, he and Knott placed Hunt Ball to such good effect that he won seven of his eight races, including the Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. That run of success also saw his BHA rating shoot up from 68 to 154, a spectacular increase over the period of just five months. Although they were unable to maintain that level of performance in the season just finished, Hunt Ball was placed three times at Cheltenham and won Taunton’s richest ever chase last month.
The sacking of Knott and Hunt Ball leaves Burke with just 11 horses in his stable, none of them what you would call household names. He’s taking a big risk in disposing of such a successful horse, and with it, the possibility of any more horses from Anthony Knott. I hope for his sake, it doesn’t turn out to be a gamble that goes badly wrong.