Danny Cook had never ridden a horse when he left school. Now he is riding the Yorkshire-trained steeplechaser who is one the favourites for today’s £1m Grand National at Aintree. Tom Richmond meets the jockey and connections.
DANNY Cook thought he had made it as a jump jockey when he first rode in the Grand National.
“I had the biggest smile in the world going down to the first fence,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
He was still on cloud nine when he, and Pablo Du Charmil, came crashing down at the second.
He had ridden in the National, the world’s ultimate steeplechase, and fulfilled every rider’s dream.
That was 2010 – the year the talismanic Sir AP McCoy won on Don’t Push It.
When I rode in it in 2010, I was so excited to be there and part of the occasion. This year is a bit different – I’ve got a live chance. I would like to have gone under the radar in the build-up. It’s been surreal for my family to read all about me in the papers.Danny Cook
Fast-forward seven years and Cook is no longer the court jester joking beforehand.
He is the late-blossoming jockey entitled with Definitly Red, Yorkshire’s representative in the 170th Grand National, sponsored by Randox Health, and a probable big-race favourite.
Trained at Malton by Brian Ellison and owned by retired Tickhill businessman Phil Martin, Cook has been the focus of national attention in the build-up.
Born in Essex, the then 16-year-old either wanted to be a soldier or a jockey – the latter only prevailed because Doncaster’s Northern Racing College replied to his application and the Army did not.
“It took me a couple of weeks to learn the trot,” he recalled. “Once I learned the trot, I was galloping. There was no stopping me...”
When he first ventured to Yorkshire, he had never sat on a horse and there then followed a stop-start career, not helped by nagging self-doubt, that saw Cook struggle.
Yet, after being given a chance – and some confidence – by West Country trainer David Pipe, whose Vieux Lion Rouge is vying for favouritism with Definitly Red, his career took off when he moved to Yorkshire after being promised rides by owner Dan Gilbert.
Thanks to 2013 Grand National-winning trainers Sue and Harvey Smith, the aforementioned Ellison and agent Bruce Jeffrey, the winners – and recoginition – have risen in the past three years.
There have been blips – injuries, whip infringements and a six-month ban after testing positive for cocaine in 2015 following a night out in York that he lived to regret.
Now on the 47-winner mark for the current campaign, one short of his career-best tally of 48 last year, Cook can sense the weight of expectation. “Though I am excited, it’s a bit more nervy than last time,” says the 33-year-old, who spends each summer working for his family’s landscape gardening business.
“When I rode in it in 2010, I was so excited to be there and part of the occasion. This year is a bit different – I’ve got a live chance. I would like to have gone under the radar in the build-up. It’s been surreal for my family to read all about me in the papers. It’s a nice pressure to have but the main priority is me and the horse.”
The horse in question is Definitly Red – the eight-year-old’s spelling, for the benefit of pedants, is a result of an Irish point-to-point trainer being slightly worse for wear in Ireland when the gelding was being registered. The name is a legacy of the horse’s sire, Definite Article, and dam, The Red Wench, who gave foal to this potential National winner.
Yet there is no doubting the horse’s ability – a Boxing Day win in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase preceded a wide-margin victory in Doncaster’s Grimthorpe Chase.
Won last year by The Last Samuri, who then finished an agonising second at Aintree, Definitly Red does not have to carry a 10lb weight penalty today because the handicap was determined before the Town Moor test.
It is why the aforementioned Ellison and Martin agreed to enter the one-time Cheltenham Gold Cup prospect.
Sheffield-born Martin, 65, always promised himself a racehorse if he was successful in business. When he sold his engine lubricant company, he did so.
Now he and his wife Julie have 40 horses in training.
“I got him at the Cheltenham Sales,” said Martin, who picked six possible acquisitions and ended up with Definitly Red and The Grey Taylor.
“It’s pot luck. There are people paying £300,000 for horses that turn out not to be very good. They were both £110,000 apiece. In my opinion, it’s quite enough for a National Hunt horse.
“I had hoped he would be a Cheltenham horse this year, whether it be the Gold Cup or Ryanair Chase. When he didn’t make that grade, the only race for him was the National. He’s well handicapped and might not get a better chance.”
Ellison concurs as the pair enjoy breakfast at the trainer’s Spring Cottage Stables shortly after Cook has successfully schooled Definitly Red over a pair of replica Aintree fences.
Ellison is the proud Geordie from Newcastle who has made Yorkshire home and who, with the help of wife Claire and a team of dedicated staff is regarded as the country’s foremost dual-purpose trainer after saddling his 1,000th winner last year.
A pugnacious figure, he specialises in targeting big handicaps. He won the Ebor with Moyenne Coyniche in 2011 and came within a whisker of fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition and winning the Northumberland Plate, his home-town race, with the Martin-owned Seamour last year.
The talk is about the races that he would most like to win. “The Plate, Ebor and Melbourne Cup,” says Ellison’s wife optimistically. He does not disagree.
Then the Grand National. Proud that his only previous runner, Neptune Equester, completed the course and was 13th in 2012 (Cook missed the ride with a broken leg), there is no self-doubt following his stable star’s Grimthorpe win.
“The way he travelled, the way he jumped. He didn’t come off the bridle until after the last,” says the 65-year-old. The horse had a final canter yesterday. “Getting him there, that’s the main thing,” said Ellison.
Now to the National. Yet, while the marathon four-and-a-quarter-mile trip is an unknown, it is now down to horse and rider.
“Brian is a very good trainer. He can train five-furlong sprinters or four-mile chasers. He’s very good keeping them fresh,” says Cook, who first watched the race in 1999 when Paul Carberry swung from the rafters of the old winner’s enclosure after Bobbyjo prevailed for his father, Tommy.
If Cook wins, this summer’s stag weekend before his wedding to his fiance Kirsty could be elongated. Together with other relatives she will be at Aintree with the couple’s 15-month-old son George, who will be sporting Definitly Red’s two-tone green and red colours.
“Winning the National would mean everything to me,” he continues.
“It’s the race that everyone knows. I’ve worked so hard to get this far. Every time I have a winner, I want more. I want to be the best I can be.
“I’ve had one National ride and need to put that experience to good use. I don’t really know how to prepare – keep things simple and keep them basic. Keep calm and relaxed. To compete and win would be the ultimate.”
Then, Danny Cook will have good reason to smile.