08/07/2001 11:00PM

Gary Burke of TOC dead

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Gary Burke, the chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, was found dead in a local hotel room on Tuesday. The cause of death was not announced. Burke was 61.

Burke became TOC chairman last month after serving on the board of directors since the organization was formed.

In the last week, Burke was active in racing events at Del Mar. On Saturday, Burke attended the TOC's annual meeting and hosted the organization's awards banquet. Last week, he worked behind the scenes negotiating on language that would allow telephone betting in the state.

"He really enjoyed his role as chairman," said TOC president John Van de Kamp. "This is a sad situation. He was the salt of the earth. He was as nice a person as you'd want to meet."

Burke was a fixture in the box seat area at Southern California tracks, always dressed in his trademark suspenders and often in the company of trainer Clifford Sise.

"He was my best friend," Sise said. "Gary enjoyed racing immensely."

A resident of Glendora, Calif., Burke was the chairman and former owner of Burke Engineering Co., a distributor of automatic controls for heating and refrigeration. In recent years, Burke had hinted of retirement, but remained active with the company.

"He enjoyed his work," Sise said. "He'd be there at 5:30 a.m. He was always saying he'd retire, but he never had it in him."

Burke owned a string of claiming horses trained primarily by Sise. A racing fan since 1959, he bought his first racehorse since 1983. Through the 1990's, he owned, with his son Timothy, such stakes winners as Apreciada, Comininalittlehot, Emailit, and Raise the Prize.

Burke is survived by his wife, Georgia, and four children. Services are pending.