A month after jump jockey Henry Brooke’s life was in the balance, he’s back on the comeback trail thanks to a pioneering centre for injured riders. Tom Richmond paid a visit.
HENRY BROOKE is the living embodiment of Jack Berry House, the pioneering rehabilitation centre which helps to piece broken jockeys back together so these wounded warriors can defy medical odds and return to the saddle.
Four weeks ago, the Middleham rider was in intensive care after being airlifted to hospital in a medically-induced coma with a collapsed and punctured lung, life-threatening internal bleeding, nine broken ribs and a chipped shoulder bone - all suffered when his prone body was kicked violently by a pursuing horse.
It could have been worse.
“It was just a little daft fall. It was nothing. I’ve walked away from a hell of a lot worse unscathed. A horse following just kicked me a couple of times,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t be here today without the medical staff at the racecourse, the air ambulance, the people in intensive care and this place.”
He is referring to Jack Berry House and it’s thanks to the extraordinary ethos behind this £3.5m complex at Malton – its mission is to “see injury as an opportunity to rebuild yourself and come back better than before” – that the 26-year-old intends to resume riding later this month.
And the iron determination is self-evident in Brooke’s voice – he wants to ride over Aintree’s world famous Grand National fences on December 3 and repeat last year’s victory, his biggest to date, on the gallant Highland Lodge.
“I’ll be fitter leaving here than when I was riding last time,” Brooke tells The Yorkshire Post. He means it – and that’s after one week’s residential care and rehab at a centre which derives its name from the indefatigable rider, trainer, ambassador and tireless fundraiser Jack Berry who helped instigate the Injured Jockeys Fund in 1964.
Like all jockeys, Brooke had to test his own invincibility after virtually discharging himself from Newcastle Victoria Infirmary a week after he parted company from the Brian Ellison-trained novice chaser Old Storm at Hexham on October 8.
After feeling well enough to ride a horse on the gallops, this stubborn Yorkshireman found his powers of recovery not to be quite so superhuman after all, hence the move to Jack Berry House where he began to appreciate the world-class support now available.
When Brooke first arrived at the centre, which also has four respite rooms where patients can stay overnight, he had lost a stone of weight in a week – slightly perturbing to a young man who has to keep his weight constant at a steady 10st – and was unsteady on his feet.
Physiotherapist Gemma Darley remembers this moment. “When he first came in, I looked at Henry and thought he should still be in hospital,” she said. “I also knew it was Henry, and I knew him by reputation.”
“Steady,” replies her patient, a former champion conditional who rode his 200th career winner in July.
“In fairness, he’s doing really well and he’s doing better than I thought,” says York-born Darley whose father, Kevin, was champion Flat jockey in 2000.
“Just keep telling people I’m fit and healthy,” says Brooke through grimaced teeth.
This repartee masks the rider’s discomfort as his suffering shoulder is rigorously stretched to improve the range of movement. It’s a minor handicap if the Highland Lodge dream is to be realised.
When Darley started work at Jack Berry House, it was for just eight hours a week. Yet demand means she’s working there 40 hours and is an integral part of a homely team managed by Jo Russell whose own father, Alec, is a longstanding racecourse photographer.
“I’ve worked in racing all my life – you know about the Injured Jockey Fund, but you don’t appreciate the extent of its work until you realise how inspirational Jack Berry has been,” says Russell.
After all, the aforementioned Berry – arguably the most active 79-year-old in the country – first came up with the concept in the late 1960s when his leg was shattered in a riding fall and it took him years to persuade the IJF, of which he is vice president, to build such centres.
Yet, for Brooke, Jack Berry House is a lifesaver. Without it, he would have to travel to Lambourn – or struggle without three specialist sessions a day dedicated to his specific health and fitness needs. It’s also made him more appreciative of life.
“The fall has changed me in a massive way,” he admits. “It’s a real eye-opener in how I relate to people, not just in racing. You see the racecourse doctors every day, and think they’re just first-aiders trying to stop you riding after all, until they save your life. Then you see the light.”
Given the impatience of jockeys when injured, Brooke has also learned a new word - patience. “There isn’t much room for error in racing any more,” he says. “When I come back, I want people to know I’m fit to do the job. If you’re going to do a job, and be paid to ride horses, you do it properly.”
It helps that Jack Berry House radiates positivity – those using its facilities include Malton jockey George Chaloner who broke his right ankle and foot in 15 places last year. Out for seven months, he believes the one-to-one recovery programme accelerated his recovery by two months.
Brooke is buoyed by this news as he prepares for a session in a state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool, complete with underwater treadmill, which is far more sophisticated than the makeshift contraption used by Leeds triathlete Alistair Brownlee before the 2012 Olympics.
“If it wasn’t for Jack Berry and this, we would be stuffed,” Brooke tells Chaloner. “I’m back on November 29 if I’m right. My lung is still bruised. If Danny’s any good, he will have me right.”
The last remark is a prompt for fitness coach Danny Hague who supervises the strength conditioning session in the pool. It enables users to build up their strength – crucial given the state of Brooke’s collapsed lung which has proved more troublesome than the rib injuries – without exerting undue physical strain.
As the rider’s tolerance increases, jets of fast-flowing water are switched on as the jockey steps up the pace on the treadmill. Hague agrees as he explains how core fitness is crucial to a rider’s ability in the saddle. “Fatigue affects technique. If you can improve their resilience, they will be technically more proficient and make better decisions.”
Again, Henry Brooke is pleased. It helps that every patient wants to get stronger. The short-term pain could be his long-term gain if he returns to the saddle in peak condition. Prize money from his first win has been promised to Jack Berry House while he intends to spend next summer raising money for the air ambulance. “Something that hurts,” he says. “It will remind me how lucky I am.”