THIRD time lucky? Henry Brooke certainly hopes so, with an extra emphasis on the word ‘luck’, when he is reunited with his faithful horse, Across The Bay, in the Crabbie’s Grand National.
His only two previous rides in the Aintree spectacular have been on the staying chaser trained by Donald McCain, who will be forever linked with the National thanks to his late father’s association with the one and only Red Rum.
Yet, while 24-year-old Brooke and Across The Bay ultimately finished 14th in both attempts at the National, these two character-building experiences could not have been more contrasting – and emblematic of how riders in Saturday’s big race should expect the unexpected.
In 2013, the gallant Across The Bay led the field for much of the contest before fading towards the denouement of a race in which Sue Smith’s Auroras Encore became the first Yorkshire winner since Neville Crump’s Merryman II in 1960.
Twelve months ago, horse and rider were jumping for fun and led the field past the winning post on the first circuit when the riderless Tidal Bay loomed up on the inner as Brooke’s mount prepared to make a sharp left back out into the country.
Amidst the deafening noise from the crowd, Brooke was not aware of the looming threat. “I didn’t know he was there,” the Middleham rider told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “Tidal Bay, I tried to keep him in there but there was nothing I could do... he pushed us out because he wanted to get back to the stables.”
In an instant, Across The Bay – owned by the enthusiastic Scotch Piper Syndicate Background which derives its name from the Scotch Piper pub at Lydiate north of Liverpool and the oldest hostelry in Lancashire – had gone from first to last.
“I half thought of pulling up, but kept going,” explained the jockey. “I didn’t put the gun to his head and let him get back in his stride and we got round in 14th place, which was the important thing. It was definitely not meant – it was just one of those things – but it gave the owners, and the team, hope for this year.
“He was very unlucky at Cheltenham in the race for amateur riders. He was running a blinder and managed to be brought down by another runner several strides after the fence at the top of the hill. He just needs a bit of luck, that’s all. He’s got a great weight at 10st 6lb, a bit less than last year, and good ground will help.”
Born in Tadcaster, Brooke left Yorkshire at the age of 18 to become conditional jockey, behind Jason Maguire, at McCain’s yard in Cheshire and confirmed his promise by winning the race to become champion conditional in 2013.
His tally was helped by two victories on Across The Bay, first at Kelso in the autumn of 2012 and then in Haydock’s Rendlesham Hurdle the following Spring.
Yet, at the end of last season, Brooke chose to return to Yorkshire to ride as a freelance – he felt the time was right for a new challenge. “I didn’t leave and I didn’t get told to leave,” he said.
“We just separated for a little bit and it was time for me to do my own thing. I now go into McCain’s once a week and we get on better than ever. With Jason injured, I’ve started getting some rides and it was nice to get a call off my agent Richard Hale saying that I had got the ride. It was a good phone call to receive; I was hoping for it, but not expecting it. It’s a big thing. There are lots of good lads and only 40 rides going.
“I’ve been able to get into some other yards and build some good contacts that will definitely help with my career. Don’t get me wrong, riding for Donald was brilliant but I wasn’t getting many rides on those days when he did not have runners. Now I’m riding for the likes of George Moore in Middleham, Micky Hammond and Dianne Sayer.
“My mum Julia has started training and has six horses in. She’s had no luck so far, but, hopefully, we can hit the ground running with them in the summer. I ride out every single day of the week at a different stable and mum’s on a Sunday.
“On a bad day, racing can feel like hard work, but I’m loving it at the moment. I knew it was going to be hard to get going again, but I would have settled for 20 winners at the start of the season and I am on 18 now – I had a double at Sedgefield on Sunday and feel that I’m going to Aintree in a positive frame of mind.
“When everyone goes out for the start of the National, you think one of these lads is going to win the biggest race in the world in 10 minutes time.”
As for tactics, Henry Brooke is adamant – he will let Across The Bay bowl along at the front of the field. “There is no other way,” says the jockey. All horse and rider need is the greatest intangible of all in the most unpredictable race of all – luck.