DANNY COOK had not even ridden a horse when champion jockey Richard Johnson was winning his first – and only – Cheltenham Gold Cup at the turn of the millennium.
Yet, as the pair prepare to line up in today’s blue riband race, Cook is hopeful that Definitly Red can challenge Johnson’s mount Native River for supremacy.
Testing conditions will suit both horses in a wide open renewal in which ante-post favourite Might Bite’s stamina will be tested to the limit as Nicky Henderson looks to add to big-race wins earlier this week in the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase with Buveur D’Air and Altior, respectively.
However, while Johnson, 40, is looking to span an 18-year gap between Gold Cup wins that would surpass Sir AP McCoy’s 14-year wait for a second triumph if Colin Tizzard’s chaser prevails, Cook harbours hopes of becoming the first Yorkshire-trained winner of the elite race since Peter Beaumont’s Jodami prevailed 25 years ago.
Owned by retired Tickhill businessman Phil Martin, and trained at Malton by Brian Ellison, who is seeking his first Festival winner, Definitly Red returns to the scene of his most impressive triumph to date after powering clear to land the Cotswold Chase at the end of January.
It is strong form that suggests stamina will not be a factor for a nine-year-old horse whose distinctive name comes from former point-to-point trainer Bryan Marshall being given an incorrect spelling of the word ‘definitely’ when filling out the registration forms in a traditional Irish hostelry.
Third in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase on his seasonal reappearance, Definitly Red won the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree from Cloudy Dream before going to Cheltenham and proving that he has scope and maturity to handle the undulations at the track provided the rain-softened ground does not become tacky.
“It’s nice to be part of the day and compete in the greatest Grade One steeplechase,” Cook told The Yorkshire Post.
“It was a great buzz to win the Cotswold Chase. The horse does handle Cheltenham – he didn’t when he was younger – and it was nice to show how good he is.
“Hopefully, we have a realistic each-way chance. He’s a horse that stays well and jumps well. You would like to think he will run into a place. Anything better will be a bonus.
“He does nothing but improve. He always gets better as the season goes on and I’m sure Brian will have him at his best – there will be no hiding place.”
Ellison, whose long barren run at Cheltenham ended in the Cotswold Chase, could not be more bullish ahead of the race after utilising the facilities of fellow Malton trainers Tim Etherington and Richard Fahey during the recent freeze.
Like Bingley’s Sue and Harvey Smith, he has been instrumental in the rise to prominence of 34-year-old Cook, who joined the Northern Racing College – the Army was the only alternative – at the same time as Johnson was riding Looks Like Trouble to Gold Cup glory in 2000.
Yet, while the then 22-year-old Johnson freely admits that he thought “these horses come along all the time”, he has had to wait almost two decades for another chance while Cook has grafted his way to the top since moving to Yorkshire.
His career hit a dead-end with Westcountry-based David Pipe in spite of a Cheltenham Festival success on Great Endeavour in 2010.
Inspired in his formative years by the three successive wins recorded by Henrietta Knight’s Best Mate, and then the great battles between the Paul Nicholls-trained stablemates Kauto Star and Denman, winning the Gold Cup, says Cook, is every jump jockey’s ultimate ambition.
“They were horses at the top of their game,” said the rider whose never-say-attitude in the saddle has left him on the 45-winner mark for the campaign.
“You only get the chance to ride in a Gold Cup once a year and it is the race for the best horses.
“It’s nice to have a horse that has a chance in jump racing’s championship race. I feel like I’m getting better with age. I’m riding better horses and riding for better stables. It’s been a long old road, and at last I can say I’ve competed in the Gold Cup.”
As for Ellison, who is regarded as one of the top dual-purpose trainers, and whose big race triumphs include the 2011 Ebor with Moyenne Corniche, he is hopeful of Definitly Red justifying his faith and the support of Yorkshire racing devotees against the likes of former Welsh National winner Native River, who was third in last year’s Gold Cup and who has been campaigned sparingly this year.