AS a smiling Henry Brooke waited to collect his trophy after Cornerstone Lad’s surprising win in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle, he sucked in the air and shook his head in slight disbelief.
He had just defeated the dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air to win the first Grade One race of his career in the colours of owner Mary Lofthouse for Middleham trainer Micky Hammond.
“This isn’t supposed to happen to Northern riders like me,” the 28-year-old rider told The Yorkshire Post as he reflected on this momentous win following a pulsating finish.
“I’ve only had a had a handful of rides in Grade Ones – maybe two. These rides, they’re hard enough to get, never mind to win one. It will be the biggest race I have ever won.”
Brooke, who lives just outside Middleham, was spending the aftermath of the race beginning to respond to the hundreds of congratulatory messages that he has received.
“I will get through them all and reply to everyone. It’s a massive job. It’s lovely everyone has taken time to say ‘well done’,” he added.
I’ve only had a had a handful of rides in Grade Ones – maybe two. These rides, they’re hard enough to get, never mind to win one. It will be the biggest race I have ever won.Henry Brooke
Testament to his personal popularity, it is also a reflection on his courage after a fall just over three years ago left him in a life-threatening coma and a daily desire, on his part, to improve his fitness and diet.
And it was also recognition of his enterprising tactics on the previously unheralded horse which earned plaudits from, amongst others, 20-time champion jockey Sir AP McCoy and the peerless Ruby Walsh.
As the tapes went up for the 50th renewal of the Fighting Fifth which is run in honour of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, Brooke just paused momentarily on Cornerstone Lad.
The idea, he says, was to throw slight doubt into the minds of his four rivals who had all assumed that he would make the pace.
Only then did Brooke ask Cornerstone Lad, still only five, to find his stride and steal a couple of lengths on the pursuers.
The tactics worked. This soft lead, ultimately decisive, soon became eight lengths as Buveur D’Air’s jockey Barry Geraghty, and Adam Nicol on Lady Buttons, played a waiting game.
Yet, just as they expected Cornerstone Lad’s challenge to fold in the home straight, Brooke kicked on again and one of the biggest shocks in a Grade One race this century suddenly became a possibility.
It saw Buveur D’Air kick the penultimate hurdle out of the ground, as Geraghty became more animated in the saddle, and the Phil Kirby-trained Lady Buttons make an uncharacteristic error.
And while Buveur D’Air did draw alongside Cornerstone Lad after the final flight, and was expected to pull clear, Brooke’s 16-1 outsider clung on by a short-head to deny the 2-13 odds-on favourite, who became shortest-priced Grade One loser in Britain and Ireland since the legendary Istabraq lost two decades ago at 1-7.
Yet, while the post-race aftermath reverberated around the veteran Geraghty’s cautious approach and a leg injury sustained by Buveur D’Air, it should not deflect attention away from Brooke’s tactical masterplan.
“You have to give Henry Brooke full credit for doing that,” said the aforementioned McCoy who is closely involved with horses that run in the colours of Buveur D’Air’s owner JP McManus.
Walsh, so long McCoy’s arch-rival, concurred. “Henry Brooke has grasped the bull by the horns and given the winner a great ride,” he said.
Yet, speaking yesterday, Brooke’s first concern was that Buveur D’Air makes a full recovery after a piece of wood from the second last hurdle became wedged in his hoof in what trainer Nicky Henderson described as a freakish injury.
“Hopefully he will pull through. That was the one sad part of the day,” reflected the jockey who picked up a four-day whip ban.”
Brooke’s landmark day had, in fact, started at dawn when he had travelled to Newcastle to assess conditions after a heavy frost had threatened to put the meeting in doubt.
He was there to support clerk of the course James Armstrong and ensure the course, which had been covered beforehand, was safe to jump from a jockey’s perspective.
He then slept in his car for an hour before preparing for his ride on Cornerstone Lad, who had warmed up for the race by winning a moderate Flat contest at Catterick before a pleasing success at Wetherby.
Future plans could include Haydock’s Grade One Champion Hurdle Trial in January – or the Irish Champion Hurdle.
The horse needs heavy ground to be seen at his best and Brooke will, as always, be happy to leave plans to connections.
“Mary Lofthouse is a longstanding friend of my grandparents,” added the rider who was in the saddle when Cornerstone Lad made a winning debut over hurdles at Hexham just over two years ago.
“She always wanted to give me a winner, and she’s given me plenty now.
“And a Grade One.”