DANNY COOK did not receive a ringing endorsement when he announced his intention to become a jump jockey before he had even ridden a horse.
His bemused parents ventured that their son would never ride in a race while Cook was so scared of horses when he first arrived at Doncaster’s Northern Racing College that he bribed trainees to look after animals in his care.
Yet, after a stop-start career beset at times by self-doubt and injury misfortune, the 32-year-old heads to Wetherby today in the form of his life thanks to his burgeoning association with the Grand National-winning team of Sue and Harvey Smith.
His five wins – from five rides – on the Smith’s stable star Wakanda culminated with a nerveless ride to take Ascot’s valuable pre-Christmas handicap chase last month while Cook produced one of the rides of the season when the error-prone Lackamon came from an inauspicious last to an improbable first to win the North Yorkshire National at Catterick on Thursday.
This victory was particularly satisfying because it was a landmark 1,000th winner for the Smiths, the formidable husband and wife team from High Eldwick who turned to the quietly determined Cook when Ryan Mania – victorious at Aintree aboard Auroras Encore – quit the saddle just over two years ago.
They are tailor-made for each other. Smith horses are trained to stay on the stamina-sapping Baildon Moor while Cook, now based in Thirsk, is one of the weighing room’s most resolute riders with a positive style that suits horses like the Ray Scholey-owned Wakanda, who is due to reappear in Cheltenham’s Cotswolds Chase – a Gold Cup trial – at the end of the month.
This is the type of staying chaser that Cook could only dream of riding when growing up in Essex and watching the racing on television every Saturday with his father Rob, a landscape gardener.
His winning run on Wakanda, one of the highlights of his career, including three eyecatching successes this season in Listed races at Wetherby, Newcastle and, finally, Ascot, took the horse’s earnings this season in excess of the prize money accrued by former Champion Chase heroes Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy.
Yet Ascot was special because it was a rare occurrence where a horse trained in the North was able to travel to a premier meeting in the South – and beat well-regarded horses from the powerhouse yards.
“It was brilliant,” Cook told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “Last year, he was very green and very keen. He used to run away with me. This year, he has manned up and lets me ride him like a proper horse.
“There’s still more to come and he’s learning all the time. Now, when he gets to the front, he pulls himself up and only goes on when challenged. The way I am, I always give 110 per cent and he is a horse that gives 110 per cent. I don’t have to ask him for a big effort until two out and he senses that. When I get after him, he finds more.
“Ascot was special because it was my first winner there. Where I grew up, Royal Ascot is the big meeting and family and friends always asked, ‘When are you going to ride there?’ I have now. It also meant a lot because I was up against Richard Johnson and Barry Geraghty, two of the best in the business, going to the last.”
Cook has another reason to savour this success. His partner Kirsty went into labour after Wakanda’s win – and the couple’s first child, George, was born the following day. He hopes his son will be proud of his accomplishments, and with good reason.
When it came to deciding a career, Cook was torn between a career in riding and the Armed Forces. He wrote letters to the British Racing School and the Army. He told his teachers that he would join the first organisation to reply with an offer. Horse racing’s gain proved to be the military’s loss, even though he admits to being slightly daunted when he first arrived at the Northern Racing College for the most formative 12 weeks of his life. The teenager had never been away from home, the size of horses scared him and riding was a mystery.
Yet he now regards this experience as “the best 12 weeks of my life”. However, he did not think so at the time. He struggled to get established and it took nearly seven years before he was given the chance to make his mark at the West Country yard of David Pipe.
There were great highs – Cook won the 2010 Byrne Plate at the Cheltenham Festival on Great Endeavour. “I rode him twice – and won on him twice,” said the rider. “One was a novice chase at Towcester, the second at Cheltenham. I’m still waiting for my second Festival winner.” He hopes it could be Wakanda.
Cook also suffered the embarrassment of taking the wrong course at Cheltenham on Our Vic before a redemptive win in Haydock’s prestigious Peter Marsh Chase on the day his month-long suspension ended. He remains forever in the debt of the loyalty shown by the horse’s late owner David Johnson.
The rider’s association with another owner, Dan Gilbert, led to him moving to the North riding for Malton’s Brian Ellison on a more regular basis before the Smiths were added to his roster of trainers. It has not always been straight-forward. He shattered a knee when thrown through the wings of an obstacle at Wetherby in December 2011 and another leg fracture, one of many, came when he was kicked by a horse at the start of a race at Newcastle – the jockey rode on unaware of the seriousness of the injury.
He was also banned for six months last year after testing positive for cocaine, an embarrassing episode which he attributes to human frailty and describes as a “lesson learned”.
Just five winners short of his personal best of 31 that he recorded in the 2014-15 campaign, Cook continues to prove the doubters wrong. “My parents said I would never ride in a race,” he recalled. “It was good motivation. The great thing about Wakanda at Ascot was my Dad was there.”
And cheering loudest of all.