HENRY BROOKE is oblivious to the fact that his mother Julia will be a nervous wreck by the time the 40-runner Grand National starts at tea-time.
“Nerves? Not all,” says the seemingly indestructible Yorkshire-born rider, who will be riding in his fifth National, sponsored by Randox Health, when he partners Highland Lodge. “Exactly the same as last year – looking forward to it.”
After all, this is the 26-year-old who cheated death last October when a fall at a Hexham left him in a coma with a punctured lung, internal bleeding, multiple rib fractures and a busted shoulder.
He also has every reason to be confident – he won the 2015 Becher Chase over the National fences on Highland Lodge before being denied a fairytale comeback win last December, less than two months after his near-fatal fall when collared by Vieux Lion Rouge, one of today’s favourites, in the final stride. If it was not for a weak lung, Brooke says he would have won and says he is “fighting fit” for today’s ultimate test.
Yet Brooke, who grew up in Easingwold, has no idea about the nine minutes of personal torment that his mother, a licensed trainer in Middleham, will suffer as she watches her eldest son compete in the most famous horse race of all when combatants, equine and human, come to expect the unexpected.
“It’s a nightmare,” she told The Yorkshire Post. “I don’t go to Aintree because Henry doesn’t want me to go – his brother Danny will go. I watch the telly and just get palpitations until you know everyone is safe and sound.
“It is just the risk element, the unknown with the National, but I don’t suppose it is much different to any other race. I’d rather watch it on my own rather than have a lot of people about. It’s quite stressful – I would rather be riding in the race myself than watching and I wouldn’t want to do that these days.
“My parents won’t even come round – Dad just says ‘what will be will be’ while, if I’m being honest, I can’t cope with Mum and her ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. It sounds terrible, but I can’t help it. It’s what I’m like. It’s just the sheer number of horses that is the worry.”
Though her son has never come to grief, he was leading in 2014 when his mount, Across The Bay, was badly hampered by a loose horse. She also faced the heartache when receiving the dreaded phone call to tell her that her son was being rushed to hospital by air ambulance and that his life hung in the balance.
Yet, perversely, she felt less anxiety than she will suffer later today because a mother’s instinct told her that she had to stay strong as her son fought the most important race of his life.
“When he got that injury, the first thing Henry said to me was: ‘Do you think I will be back for Highland Lodge in the Becher?’
“Looking back at him, and all his injuries, I said: ‘When is the Becher?’ He said: ‘Eight weeks’. I told him: ‘Oh, you will do it easy’ – but I had my fingers crossed behind my back. I know what the horse means to him.
“We thought it was a right result when he rode in the Becher. Now to be riding in the National, and have a chance, that is a bonus but there will be 40 mothers, same as me, going through torture. It’s a nightmare.”
Trained in Cumbria by Jimmy Moffatt, the jockey’s only concern was when Highland Lodge’s owners, Simon and Julie Wilson, sold the horse to Patricia and David Thompson, of Cheveley Park Stud.
It can not have been easy. When their £22,000 purchase won the 2015 Becher Chase, he was led up by the Wilsons’ terminally-ill teenage son Patrick, who died in February last year at just 16. While a last-minute purchase by the Thompsons paid off when their new acquisition, Party Politics, won the 1992 National, Brooke, who lives in Middleham, had a fretful couple of nights before the new owners confirmed that he would keep the ride over the likes of champion jockey Richard Johnson.
“I had a couple of anxious days,” said the jockey who has ridden a career-best 46 winners this season.
“Highland Lodge has been absolutely brilliant for my career and I hope he can do the new owners, Mr and Mrs Thompson, justice. He hasn’t jumped a fence since the Becher, he doesn’t like schooling, but I couldn’t be happier.
“He has a great chance. He’s been a superstar to everyone. As long as the horse comes back safe, I’ll be happy.”
So will Henry Brooke’s anxious mother as she endures a roller-coaster of emotions.