HENRY Brooke was still pinching himself with disbelief as he returned to the Aintree winner’s enclosure after the unheralded Highland Lodge jumped his rivals into the ground to win the Betfred Becher Chase – the prestigious Grand National trial.
“Absolutely unreal,” the Middleham rider told The Yorkshire Post after recording his first career win over the National course. “I’m absolutely buzzing. That was unreal. Unreal. Up the run-in, I thought ‘God, I might actually win this’. I can’t tell you what it means.
“I did think he might have a chance with bottom weight on ground that testing. My only mistake is I forgot to record the racing on television.”
This stirring success continues the quiet revival of a former champion conditional who, by his own admission, struggled to come to terms with the weight of expectation when he joined the senior ranks before deciding to leave Donald McCain’s yard to return to his Yorkshire roots and help his mother Julia set up as a trainer.
In many respects, Aintree owed the 24-year-old Brooke whose three National rides have all been aboard Across The Bay. He led for much of the 2013 race and then was hampered by a stray horse when clear in the 2014 contest. “Hopefully, I can kick on again from this,” he added.
“It’s awful when you lose your claim. I had a good start to this season but then it had just slowed down. Now this. I’ve won a Grade Two race before but this is special. Unreal. Those fences, they still take some jumping.”
Highland Lodge, a once talented chaser, was bought by trainer Jimmy Moffatt at the Doncaster Sales earlier this year for £22,000 after slipping down the pecking order at Emma Lavelle’s yard.
Running from out of the handicap, the nine-year-old was lucky to make it to Aintree – Highland Lodge is trained near Cartmel by Moffatt and he had a “nightmare” journey making it out of flood-hit Cumbria before having to contend with the carnage of Storm Desmond on the M6.
Moffatt, who trained a Cheltenham Festival winner with Chief Dan George after beginning his career with Sue and Harvey Smith, only has 14 horses in training and this was his 10th success of the current campaign.
He was full of praise for Brooke’s ride which, he says, provided Cumbria with something to cheer in the county’s hour of need. “He’s only ridden once for me before – and fell off at Sedgefield,” said Moffatt.
“It took a long time for us to get over it! Seriously, I wanted a really positive jockey who can transmit that confidence to the horse. When you’re putting a jockey up, you want someone who can ride like Henry did on Across The Bay.”
Asked to describe his emotions on the tortuous run-in as Dare To Endeavour, Dolatulo and Soll looked to close on Highland Lodge, who had been in the vanguard throughout the race, Moffatt said: “Horrible.”
He added: “This is my best season numerically since I started training in 2003 and I put it all down to getting married on May 2 to Nadine. There is a baby on the way as she is six months pregnant. She and Charlotte Jones led up Highland Lodge today.
“It is tough for a small stable like us. We have 14 horses in training and it would be helpful to have eight or nine more as there are 25 boxes at Pit Farm Racing Stables.
“We will aim Highland Lodge at the Grand National, though we might need a little help from the handicapper. He might sneak in at the bottom of the weights and we’ll try and keep him sweet between now and then. If he jumps as well as he did today, he would have a chance.”
Moffatt and Highland Lodge made it back to Cumbria before the roads became impassable. He was even more relieved to wake up yesterday morning and discover his gallops, washed away in the floods of 2012, were still in situ.
“I’m nearly as surprised at that as the horse winning,” added the trainer. It was a weekend that neither Moffatt, nor Brooke, will ever forget.
Now they hope all roads lead back to Aintree next April.