For jockey Danny Cook, ‘Big Red’ is his term of affection for Definitly Red, the Yorkshire steeplechaser who has helped take his career to new heights.
He has high hopes that the nine-year-old can become the first local winner of Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase since Peter Easterby’s Cybrandian in 1987.
Just four runners will line up in the historic £100,000 race after dry ground saw both Thistlecrack and Bristol De Mai withdrawn by connections as expected.
However, Yorkshire’s premier jumps race of the year – the traditional starting point of the main National Hunt season proper – still looks to be a competitive renewal to honour the aforementioned Hall, who trained with great success at Tadcaster.
Good ground will suit Tom George’s Double Shuffle while former champion trainer Paul Nicholls has entered Grade One winner Black Corton, whose rider Bryony Frost is arguably the most popular jockey in the country after a string of high-profile Saturday successes in the past year.
The effervescent Frost is joined in the race by a second female rider in Bridget Andrews who partners the Dan Skelton-trained Virgilio. The JP McManus-owned Regal Encore was pulled out last night.
But Cook told The Yorkshire Post that he “would not swap his horse” for any other in the race after a successful schooling session last Saturday confirmed the wellbeing of Definitly Red.
“I’m very much looking forward to getting back on the ‘Big Red’,” he enthused. “He’s not overly big, but I call him ‘Big Red’ because he’s a good horse.
“He’s fit and well. He’s in very good form, really good form, and we’re going there (Wetherby) very hopeful.”
Though Cook is stable jockey to Sue and Harvey Smith, he regularly rides for Definitly Red’s trainer Brian Ellison, who is based in Malton, and the horse’s owners Phil and Julie Martin of Tickhill.
While the jockey will be disappointed if his horse does not win today’s bet365-sponsored race, he also knows that Definitly Red appears to be a horse who improves as each season progresses.
The 2016-17 campaign saw wins in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase and Doncaster’s Grimthorpe Chase before a tilt in Aintree’s Grand National ended unluckily when Cook’s saddle slipped after clearing Becher’s Brook.
Last year saw a third-place finish behind Bristol De Mai in the Charlie Hall followed by high-profile success in Aintree’s Many Clouds Chase – and Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase – before the horse showed great resolution to finish sixth behind the mudlark Native River in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was run on unsuitably testing ground.
“It was a great season,” reflected Cook who ‘popped’ Definitly Red over a couple of fences on Malton’s gallops earlier this week.
“To win the Many Clouds and Cotswold Chases were absolutely brilliant for everybody concerned – days I won’t forget.
“And to finish sixth in the Gold Cup, when the ground went against him, was no mean feat. That was a great effort and we were really delighted.
“You can never be disappointed to finish sixth in a Gold Cup and I’m looking forward to getting the season going with him. Hopefully he will have a similar campaign.”
While the aforementioned Ellison is in America where The Mackem Bullet, his Flat runner, finished sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Fillies Juvenile Turf last night, Cook – like so many jump jockeys in Britain – has been down on rides because of the unseasonably good ground.
“I just want to get some good winners and get going,” said the former Northern Racing College graduate, who is quick to praise the work of his agent Bruce Jeffrey.
“It’s hard when you’re riding staying horses on quick ground – we train for stamina, not speed.”
In addition to Definitly Red, Cook is particularly looking forward to riding the Ellison-trained and Martin-owned Sam’s Adventure, who could have a big future when he goes novice hurdling.
He also namechecks the Sue Smith pair of Vintage Clouds, who is back in full training after a minor setback – the Welsh National and Grand National are the obvious targets for the grey – and Midnight Shadow, who will head to Cheltenham for the Greatwood Hurdle following a pleasing comeback at Wetherby last month.
“Hopefully ‘Big Red’ can get the season started,” added the 35-year-old who had never sat on a horse until the age of 16 when he left home and went to riding school at Doncaster.
The Charlie Hall Chase is preceded by a fascinating renewal of the Olbg.com Mares’ Hurdle that sees last year’s runner-up Lady Buttons, owned and bred by Jayne Sivils, attempt to go one better for Catterick trianer Phil Kirby and jockey Adam Nicol.
Her five rivals include Irish Roe – a £2,000 bargain buy who is just one of two horses trained on a Northallerton farm by Lucinda and Peter Atkinson.
However, just like the aforementioned Cook, Kirby is simply looking forward to getting up and running. “Lady Buttons seems in really good form. She has done enough work to run well,” he said.
“She likes the track and she should go on the ground provided it doesn’t dry out too much. The plan is to go back chasing – we’ll see how the season unfolds – but I wouldn’t rule out going back to Ireland for the big hurdle races there. She’s versatile and she gets on very well with Adam. I just find the right races – he does the steering.”
The concluding feature is the three-mile West Yorkshire Hurdle in which Kirby’s Nautical Nitwit faces a tough ask against Wholestone and Old Guard in a guide to the stayers’ division. “The ground is not a problem for him,” he added. “It is great to run in a race of this nature.”