THE most important part of jump jockey Henry Brooke’s week is ironically the only time that he’s not riding or at the races – Sunday nights.
It’s when he starts to plan where he will compete in the coming days and where he can ride out on the gallops to catch the eye of trainers.
Telephone calls are made, and arrangements finalised, before the Middleham jockey – 27 next week – begins the next leg of his round-Britain tour.
‘Have saddle, will travel’ is his motto. The past week has seen the freelance rider go to Fakenham for one ride (pulled up), Market Rasen (fifth), Sedgefield where two rides included a pleasing victory in the Durham National and Carlisle for a fourth place finish. Yesterday Brooke was at Cheltenham where his one ride came to grief at the first flight. Today he’s at Kelso.
And he also looks to fit in up to four gym sessions each week at Jack Berry House, the Injured Jockeys Fund rehab centre in Malton which nursed him back to fitness when he suffered heavy fall just two years ago that left him in hospital intensive care fighting for his life.
A punishing schedule, the Yorkshireman knows it is necessary if he’s to take his career – and fitness – to a new level so he can compete in more of the bigger races. “People wonder why I’m going so far for one ride on a 50-1 shot,” he tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “It might be no good but the next spare could be a winner. Doors open. You never know what is round the corner.”
A decade ago, Brooke had still to ride his first winner. He’d left school and was working as an amateur jockey for the then Middleham trainer Kate Walton. He then moved to the Cheshire yard of Grand National-winning trainer Donald McCain and was champion conditional – the country’s best young rider – in 2011-12.
Yet, like so many jockeys, Brooke struggled to make the transition to senior status when he lost the weight allowance that apprentice riders receive until their 75th career success. A move back to Yorkshire followed some years later – his mum Julia now trains just outside Middleham – and he is now following the example of Brian Hughes, the North’s most successful rider at present, by pushing himself even harder to reach the next level.
Only he can do it. No one else will. But he believes he still has time on his side now “the penny has dropped” that he’s got to go out and look for rides rather than wait for the phone to ring.
“Donald’s was a hard place to work, but it was the grounding of me,” reflects Brooke. “I was champion conditional and the media build you up. The more they build someone up, the harder the fall the other side. Right through my claim, I was getting spare rides from trainers who I’d never ridden for previously. Once I lost my claim, I found myself riding a lesser quality of horse.”
At the same time, National Hunt racing has become even more competitive because so many meetings in the North are regularly targeted by the top trainers and jockeys from the South – champion jockey Richard Johnson, by way of example, travelled to Wetherby for just one ride (a winning one) last week.
It’s why Brooke spends six mornings a week riding out for Ruth Jefferson, Sue Smith, Brian Ellison, Martin Todhunter, Peter Niven, Tim Easterby, Sandy Thomson, Micky Hammond, Jimmy Moffatt and other trainers. Sundays are spent closer to home schooling his mother’s horses.
On Tuesday when there was no racing, he left home at 5.30am, arrived at Jefferson’s Malton stables just after 7am and then left at 10.30am to head to John Mackie’s yard at Uttoxeter to school Lunar Jet ahead of yesterday’s ultimately luckless maiden hurdle at Cheltenham.
Yet, instead of driving straight home to Middleham, he went back to Malton for a punishing one hour gym session with Danny Hague, a fitness instructor at Jack Berry House, who has become a friend after Brooke’s life-threatening fall in 2016. He draws inspiration from the positivity at the rehab centre.
“He (Hague) can find a weakness. Before you know it, it’s a strength,” says Brooke. “I don’t want to cruise. I want to push myself. I don’t want to ride 50 or so winners a season. I want more. This is the first year I’m not eating binge food or fizzy drinks. I’m stronger. One thing I do not like is being at home when there’s racing on. For me, I’d rather be on a 100-1 shot. I like to be there. If you’re not booked on a horse at 10am or the next day, it’s a hard thing to get your head around.”
Brooke is looking forward to riding old favourite Highland Lodge in Aintree’s Becher Chase in early December. Victorious over the Grand National fences in 2015, it’s likely to be the veteran horse’s final race.
He also has high hopes for Irish Roe who is trained by Northallerton farmer Peter Atkinson and his wife Lucinda – the mare could, ground permitting, reappear at Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase meeting next weekend.
Wetherby has been a lucky track for Brooke. He’s won the last two renewals of the Rowland Meyrick Chase, the Boxing Day feature, on Definitly Red and Get On The Jager.
He also won a dramatic Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster in January when Wakanda came with a late rattle after the last fence to win a five-way finish.
And while he’s hopeful that he will continue to pick up such rides, he’s leaving nothing to chance as he looks build on his 280-plus career wins to date. “Good horses will win a race under any rider. You’ve got to get on them in the first place,” adds Brooke. “A wet Tuesday at Sedgefield, getting a 20-1 shot up on the line when it has no right to win. That’s when I know the hard work is paying off and the better horses come.”