THE very fact that Danny Cook is riding this Christmas is testament to his amazing will to win and powers of recovery after a shattering fall 12 months ago that left his career in ruins.
His left kneecap was shattered in three places when novice hurdler Amtired ran out at the penultimate flight at Wetherby – and hurled the helpless rider through the wings of the obstacle.
The prognosis was not good: doctors said it would be at least a year before Brian Ellison’s stable jockey could even return to the saddle.
Yet Cook refused to be beaten. Demonstrating the willpower that goes to the core of any jump jockey’s DNA, the 29-year-old returned to the saddle after completing an intensive seven-month recovery programme.
Cook, who spends long hours in the sauna keeping his weight in check, has been surprised by the results – his tally of 13-winners includes an unforgettable four-timer at Musselburgh last weekend after he overcame severe dehydration which left him too weak to unsaddle a horse.
Now he is looking forward to Wetherby’s two-day Christmas fixture next week – and putting the torment of the past year behind him.
“It was Castleford Chase day and I was really looking forward to it, I had a good book of rides including a couple for outside rides for trainers like Malcolm Jefferson,” Cook told the Yorkshire Post.
“It was my first ride and Amtired had a chance. For some reason, he went through the plastic wing which broke and I landed on my left kneecap. I kept trying to stand up, but it kept giving way under me. I went back to the weighing room in the ambulance and I thought I would be okay – I wasn’t in any pain. Once they sat me down, the medics put their fingers where the kneecap should have been, but it had all split apart.”
The timing could not have been worse – Cook was beginning to establish himself at Ellison’s Malton yard after moving north from David Pipe’s stable where he served his apprenticeship.
As he contemplated the future from his hospital bed, Cook came to the conclusion that he might not ride again if sidelined for 12 months because of his burgeoning weight.
Help was at hand. Once mobile, he spent three months at Oaksey House – the Injured Jockeys Fund rehabilitation centre in Lambourn – undergoing intensive gym work, swimming physio and acupuncture. It is why he is now such a strong advocate of IJF vice-president Jack Berry’s plan to build a similar facility in Malton, and which could come to fruition next year.
The recovery did not end here. There were the hours spent running across North Yorkshire’s fields – or the gruelling squash sessions with fellow rider Harry Haynes – before Cook could do justice to Ellison’s horses.
His blood, sweat and tears was rewarded at Musselburgh last Sunday when the jockey finished an unlikely third on 66-1 outsider Desgrey before winning each of his remaining four races. “It was great because I had not had a winner for two weeks,” explained Cook. “It’s a great milestone, one to be proud of. When the first went in, I got my confidence going.
“I was pushing on Mr Ellison’s Dusky Bob for a circuit, but it took it out of me – I hadn’t much fluids since the day because I had to get down to 10st 7lb for one of my later rides.
“When I came back, I couldn’t get the saddle off. I had to be helped. I was over-heated. My eyes were blurred and I couldn’t tell where I was going, but they got me back to the weighing room, I had a small drink – and then Imperial Vic, Totalize and Amisfield Lad all won. It was only a problem because I had been kicked by a horse the week before and couldn’t exercise my leg properly.”
At 5ft 11in tall, Cook – like 17-times champion AP McCoy – is unnaturally tall for a jump jockey. He also has no background in racing. When ordered at the age of 15 to leave school in Romford, Essex, because of poor behaviour, he told the careers officer that he would not mind being a jockey because he liked watching racing on TV. This chance conversation set in motion a train of events that would take Cook to Doncaster’s Northern Racing College before a stint with Uttoxeter trainer Barry Leavy. Exasperated by the lack of opportunities, he was on the point of quitting before applying for a job at the all-conquering Pipe yard in the hope that a bigger stable would offer greater opportunities.
The gamble paid off. As well as learning his trade alongside accomplished horsemen of the calibre of McCoy and Tom Scudamore, the aspiring jockey’s career took off.
Weeks after taking the wrong course on the highly-rated Our Vic at Cheltenham, Cook won Haydock’s prestigious Peter Marsh Chase in January, 2010 on David Johnson’s gallant horse – it was his first ride after a 28-day ban and he remains indebted to the owner, and Pipe, for their loyalty.
An even bigger reward came two months later when Cook carried the Johnson colours to Cheltenham Festival glory aboard Great Endeavour in the Byrne Group Plate before a first ride in the Grand National on Pipe’s Pablo Du Charmil ended at the third.
As Cook rode out his claim, he was invited by Ellison to become stable jockey – a decision that was paying off until injury intervened. Yet the setback has not dented the rider’s confidence. His hope for 2013 is to ride a Cheltenham Festival winner for Ellison and leading owner Dan Gilbert. Hurdler Bothy could be that horse. He lines up in The Ladbroke at Ascot today while Cook travels to Haydock to partner Yes You Can, who won at the Merseyside track last month.
Either way, Danny Cook is just happy to be racing.
“We’ve got a good yard, happy staff and happy horses,” he said. “They are always fresh and they never get overworked. My mantra is simple. The more you race, the easier it is to control your weight. And the harder you work, the greater the rewards.”
If only National Hunt racing was that simple.