A FEARLESS Jonathan England is a picture of contentment following one of the more satisfying victories of his burgeoning career.
Two months ago, he was flat on his back in Leeds General Infirmary and virtually immobile after fracturing one of his vertebrae in a fall on a return from the gallops. A concerned doctor – unaware of the resilience of jump jockeys – even cautioned that he might not ride again.
Yet, despite this bleak prognosis, he is not only back in the saddle – but back in the winner’s enclosure after the front-running Distime’s stirring victory at Sedgefield on Tuesday.
Not only was this satisfying from a personal point of view – the horse is owned by his fiancée Samantha Drake’s mother Janet and trained by the rider’s prospective father-in-law Richard – but it proved that the freak injury had caused little lasting damage.
For this, the nerveless rider attributes his recovery to not only his own will-power but the expertise of Jack Berry House – the rehabilitation centre built at Malton by the Injured Jockeys’ Fund.
Without this facility, named in honour of Leeds-born racing legend Jack Berry, England could have expected to spend many months – if not longer – on the injury sidelines.
Now he hopes to ride Distime over the iconic Grand National fences at Aintree in three weeks’ time. It is some recovery.
“Having an injury like this makes you appreciate a hell of a lot more what you had – and what you were riding,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview ahead of today’s Wetherby meeting where he is due to be in action.
“It hurts when you see other lads riding on horses that you would have been on. It hurts even more when those horses win. You’re pleased for connections – but even more determined to make it back.”
The morning of September 10 could not have been more routine at the Drake family farm in Guiseley. England, 24, and his wife-to-be, a former rider, had been schooling the stable’s horses with little alarm until calamity struck as the jockey returned from the gallops aboard a three-year-old gelding that had been recently purchased by his father John at the Doncaster sales.
“He was just spooked... he did a few big bucks and I ended up head first on the concrete in the yard,” he said. “It was the way I landed. I hit my head on the ground, went onto my face and my body rolled over onto me.”
Yet, while the pain was excruciating, his first thought was when he would resume riding. There was no doubt in England’s mind. The pain soon became secondary to the frustration that he endured for the next week in the LGI while he waited for a body brace to be fitted.
As soon as he was discharged, and with his back secured by the brace, he was helping build new steeplechase fences for the gallops and was relieved when his six-week scan showed that the fracture was making progress.
“The consultant said I could start light exercise and swimming, so I ended jumping on the back of a horse,” said England. “My first day riding out, I ended up schooling the horse I fell from. He was brilliant.”
How ironic. Yet the real progress came when England started using the IJF’s hydrotherapy pool which is one of the most advanced in the world. It has a treadmill on the bottom which enabled him to run in the water without destabilising his back.
He also swam into powerful jets of water to build his fitness and could not be more complimentary about the centre’s manager, Jo Russell, and her team. He even met Jack Berry.
“I met the great man on my last day and he shook my hand. He deserves a knighthood,” said England. “I’ve got back my fitness much quicker than if I had been left to my own devices.”
Unnaturally tall for a rider at six-feet, it helps that England is naturally fit – his training partner is the legendary Isle of Man TT motorcycle rider Ian Hutchinson.
His fitness and work ethic has also been shaped by his association with the Grand National-winning team of Sue and Harvey Smith – they gave England his first significant opportunity in racing in October, 2011 and this association only ended in April this year when the jockey looked to branch out and ride for other yards.
England’s successes included a heart-warming Boxing Day victory aboard Cloudy Too in the 2013 Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby. They were second in a Grade One chase at Ascot before coming to grief at the final fence in the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“I can’t thank Sue and Harvey enough. They looked after me and gave me some great opportunities for which I shall always be grateful,” he said. “I got a good grounding and a good education with them.”
As for the future, Jonathan England is just one victory short of the 75-winner mark when he will lose his weight allowance and have to compete against the all the top riders as an equal on level terms. He is relishing the challenge.
He’s also hopeful that his fiancée will be granted a trainer’s licence in the coming weeks so she can take over the reins from her father.
The stable also contains a proven performer in Raktiman and an affectionate Shetland pony called Benji who goes to the races with those horses which are not the best travellers.
England hopes his determination to overcome injury will persuade more trainers to call his agent, Bruce Jeffrey, and offer rides as he looks to establish himself as one of the North’s top jump jockeys. “I just want to kick on,” says England.
He will after this lucky break.