DANNY Cook was looking forward to a new National Hunt season as he cantered to the start at Market Rasen last October.
It was, traditionally, his favourite time of year because of growing anticipation at the reappearance of top horses and new stars who had been pleasing him on the Yorkshire gallops.
He also considered himself to be in a privileged position because 20 years of “graft” had led to the rides on favourites like Brian Ellison’s Definitly Red and Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds and Midnight Shadow.
And then it was all over – in an instant – when the Smith-trained Ravenhill Road suffered an uncharacteristic fall when poised to challenge under Cook, one of the bravest, fittest and most determined riders to compete in the North.
Now, after a 11-month battle to regain sufficient use of his bloodied, battered and bruised right eye after suffering multiple X-rated facial injuries, Cook, 38, has conceded defeat and announced his retirement this week.
“It was a soft fall,” rued Cook who was no stranger to injuries during a stop-start career that yielded nearly 400 winners and only took off in its latter years when he relocated to Yorkshire. “The horse behind me trod on my face and that is what caused the damage.
“I was a bit dazed – and I could see a lot of blood – but I didn’t know how bad it was. When I came round, my first reaction was ‘What happened?’ I was thinking that I was about to challenge to win the race and then I was out of the race. All over in a split-second.”
Cook was taken by ambulance to Hull Royal Infirmary where his arrival in A&E was filmed by a fly-on-the-wall TV crew who were taken aback by his determination to resume riding when his injuries to the right-side of face looked so gruesome.
He required over 50 stitches to his eye and played down the seriousness of the injury – even making a brief return to the saddle around a month later.
However Cook had a nagging sense that all was not well with his eyesight – he likened the blurred vision to blackouts – and his comeback, and ultimately, career ended when Definitly Red suffered a heavy fall in Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase when overjumping and slithering along the turf. Even now, Cook maintains that his vision was not a contributory factor.
However he is comforted by the knowledge that his very last ride was on the horse that took his career to new heights as well as luckless runs in two Cheltenham Gold Cups and a Grand National when the rider’s saddle slipped.
His wins on Definitly Red included two renewals of the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree, the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham and the 2018 Charlie Hall Chase – the very races that piqued Cook’s interest in racing when growing up in Romford.
He had two career choices when he left school – the Army or becoming a jockey – and the military’s loss was horse’s racing gain when the then Northern Racing College at Doncaster was the first to respond, even though their new recruit had never sat on a horse.
Cook soon made up for lost time, spending his formative racing years with Martin and David Pipe in Somerset, where he enjoyed a successful association with the popular chaser Our Vic and a landmark win at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival on Great Endeavour.
But, after his career stagnated, Cook made the most of an unexpected opening with Yorkshire racing legends Sue and Harvey Smith. He also had a great ally in jockeys’ agent Bruce Jeffrey.
It is also a measure of racing’s high regard for Cook that so many jockeys and trainers have paid tribute to his horsemanship and courage – Definitly Red’s trainer Brian Ellison noted: “Danny was a brilliant jockey, especially over a fence, and brave as you like.” This is praise when Cook spent his entire career in the shadows of Sir AP McCoy and Richard Johnson who amassed 8,000 winners between them.
In turn, Cook believes his finest win was Definitly Red’s 2018 Cotswold Chase win when the now retired chestnut, owned by Phil and Julie Martin, put together a foot perfect round of jumping for a small horse taking on more established steeplechasers over Cheltenham’s big fences.
He also enjoyed many pleasurable days on the Smith-trained Vintage Clouds – but it was Ryan Mania who was in the saddle when the Trevor Hemmings-owned grey surged up the Cheltenham hill in March to finally win the big race that had eluded the warrior for so many years.
Cook missed the race – he only caught up with the result afterwards – but said he felt no regret at the time on missing out on such a notable win. The hardest time, he says, is the present and the realisation that he won’t back as he comes more involved in his family’s landscape gardening ventures.
“It’s difficult. This is the time of year I enjoyed most – good horses getting going again and new ones starting out,” he added. “I’m just taking it on the chin. It is what it is. There’s no point worrying about it – my eyesight is okay when I’m not in the crouch position riding so that’s something.
“Looking back, I think I was an over-achiever. I went into racing having never ridden a horse and enjoyed two decades.
“It’s something I can be proud of. And I am.”