Heartbreaking defeat for valiant Henry Brooke

THE disappointment etched across heartbroken jockey Henry Brooke's face was plain to see after his heroic mount Highland Lodge came within a short-head of becoming the first horse to win successive renewals of the Betfred Becher Chase over Aintree's daunting Grand National fences.

Highland Lodge and Henry Brooke are pictured jumping the final fence on their way to winning the Betfred Becher Chase at Aintree a year ago today but they were edged into second on Saturday (Picture: John Giles/PA Wire).

Eight weeks ago, the Middleham rider was in a coma with life-threatening injuries after being kicked violently by a horse at Hexham.

When he came round, it was the dream of winning this prestigious race on Jimmy Moffatt’s stable star that spurred his astonishing recovery.

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“I’m only interested in winning,” said the 26-year-old Yorkshireman, who only made his comeback at Catterick last Wednesday after doctors declared that his collapsed lung, nine fractured ribs and chipped shoulder had healed.

Written off by many beforehand, Brooke and Highland Lodge were soon blazing a trail at the head of a quality field depleted by four casualties at the first two obstacles.

Avoiding riderless horses, Highland Lodge and Beeves led the field to Becher’s Brook, with the defending champion kicking for home at the fourth-last as more fancied runners started coming into prominence.

Leading over the last, and then at The Elbow halfway up the long and pulsating run-in, Brooke’s mount appeared to have a winning lead.

Horse and rider were being willed home by a crowd appreciative of the jockey’s struggles and his efforts since his fall in raising awareness about the work of the racecourse medics and air ambulance crew, who saved his life at Hexham after he suffered serious internal bleeding.

But as Highland Lodge became slightly leg-weary after an exhilarating round of jumping, he drifted away from the running rail and Tom Scudamore pounced on Vieux Lion Rouge to win by a whisker with top weight The Last Samuri – last season’s National runner-up – just a length away in third under North Yorkshire rider Brian Hughes.

All three would have been worthy winners and all, form and fitness permitting, deserve to line up in next April’s National where they will face 2015 victor Many Clouds, who was simply sublime in Aintree’s three-mile chase.

A wind operation has clearly worked wonders for the Trevor Hemmings-owned, Oliver Sherwood-trained and Leighton Aspell-ridden stayer, who is not short of Cheltenham Gold Cup class.

However, while Scudamore believes Vieux Lion Rouge is a stronger horse this year as he attempts to equal his late grandfather Michael, who won the National on Oxo, he was happy to share the limelight with the crestfallen Brooke.

Though disappointed, Brooke told himself to “win, you g*t” as he sensed his rivals closing.

“He’s a lovely horse and he still had masses in the tank,” said the rider. “I think I was in front too long. He loves it here, I’m just sorry we couldn’t hold on.”

Perspective was provided by phlegmatic owner Simon Wilson. Last year the horse was led up by his teenage son Patric, who has since died of brain cancer. “How can you be disappointed with the result?” he said.

Cartmel trainer Jimmy Moffatt concurred. He said Highland Lodge only got so close to the winning line because of Brooke’s brave tactics.

“No other rider would have got him into that position in the first place,” said the trainer. Moffatt hopes the horse’s handicap mark will now be sufficient to qualify for next year’s National after narrowly missing the cut this year. “Defeat hurt for two minutes before I put it all in perspective, he added.