Weekend Interview – ‘Kindred spirits’ Definitly Red and Danny Cook set sights on Cheltenham Gold Cup

IN MANY respects, jockey Danny Cook and Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Definitly Red were made for each other.

Danny Cook and Definitly Red clear the last in the 2018 Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.

“Guts and determination, nothing flashy,” says the rider when asked to sum up the qualities of this great horse. “What you see is what you get. He wears his heart on his sleeve. Just really, really tough.”

They are also words that have come to epitomise Cook’s no- nonsense approach to the sport.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

From a non-racing family, he had never sat on a horse until he joined Doncaster’s Northern Racing College at the age of 16.

Definitly Red and Danny Cook win the 2018 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.

Yet hard graft on Cook’s part has more than compensated for his relative late start to riding.

It is this will to win that make him – and the Brian Ellison-trained Definitly Red – such kindred spirits ahead of steeplechasing’s most celebrated race next Friday.

Sixth last year, the odds are against Phil and Julie Martin’s horse becoming Yorkshire’s first Gold Cup hero since Peter Beaumont’s Jodami won in 1993.

A quality field includes old warriors Native River and Might Bite, who fought out a pulsating finish to last year’s blue riband race, and rising stars like Presenting Percy, Monalee and Clan Des Obeaux.

Winners: Owner Phil Martin, left, after Definitly Red won the Charlie Hall Chase.

It is testament to Cook’s work-rate that he has a ride in the race – many of his more illustrious weighing room colleagues do not. “It is going to be a very, very good race,” the 35-year-old told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.

“I’m fortunate I’ve got a horse good enough to take his place in the best chase of the year – and I’ve got a great jumper. It’s going to be tough to win – but we will be giving it a go.”

Yet, while Cook and his connections dare to dream, the jockey’s rise to prominence should also be placed in the context of his childhood. Born in Romford where his family run their own landscape gardening business, his earliest memories were watching the racing on TV.

“I remember a horse called Teeton Mill, a grey horse trained by Venetia Williams, in the big races,” he said. “He ran in the Gold Cup but I didn’t know it was the Gold Cup. I followed the horse blind. It was only later that I realised it was the best race of the year between the best horses.

“Then there were the Best Mate years when he won three Gold Cups. You think you’d like to ride in the race, but you don’t think you ever will...”

When he left school at the age of 16, Cook had two career options – to sign up for the Army or go to racing school.

His mind was made up when the aforementioned NRC was the first to respond and it is where he learned the basics of riding, and horse welfare, before a stop-start career – Cook recalls it was incredibly hard for a newcomer to become established – took him to the Somerset yard of Grand National-winning trainer David Pipe.

Here he was given a chance, not least because of the support of late owner David Johnson, who hailed from London’s East End.

This culminated with the jockey carrying David Johnson’s iconic blue and green colours to Cheltenham Festival victory in 2010 aboard Great Endeavour.

His only Festival win to date, the significance was not lost on Cook as he outbattled some of the most successful National Hunt riders ever.

“It was a big deal for myself, with no previous experience of racing and going to riding school to learn to ride, to win at the Olympics of horse racing,” he said.

“I walked the track and just had a good feeling about the whole day. I also remember telling everyone I was going to win and I did. It probably meant more to me than my family – my mum has never been racing and my dad only goes a bit.”

Yet, after moving to Yorkshire to further his career, Cook is now a proven performer in big races. Thanks to owner Dan Gilbert, he started riding for Ellison – Definitly Red’s trainer.

A link-up with agent Bruce Jeffrey saw Cook become stable jockey to showjumping legend Harvey Smith and his wife Sue after Ryan Mania, the 2013 Grand National-winning rider, quit racing abruptly in late 2014.

As a result, Cook has become associated with high-profile horses at the Smith stable, like Midnight Shadow, Wakanda and Vintage Clouds, as well as Ellison’s standard-bearers headed by Definitly Red, who came of age when winning the 2018 Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.

Then to the Gold Cup six weeks later. “I tried to treat it just like another race,” elaborated the rider. “Get to the start, meet the first right, get jumping in a rhythm. It’s the same whether it is a selling hurdle or the Gold Cup. Keep it simple, keep it basic, do what you always do. There’s no need to change because it is Cheltenham.”

Looking back, Cook recalls the “excitement” in the weighing room as the best jockeys prepared to ride the best horses. From there, the slight disappointment when he mounted Definitly Red and sensed he was not quite 100 per cent right. “Flat as a pancake,” he reported.

Then admiration at how the diminutive horse, christened ‘Big Red’ by Cook, battled all the way to the line, on unsuitably tacky ground, after coming close to being tailed off. “That’s testament to how brave he is,” stressed the jockey.

Though Cook is slightly down on winners this season, and can get frustrated if a horse runs poorly because of the importance that he attaches to rewarding the loyalty of owners, trainers and stable staff, this is offset by four wins at Grade Two level – including two on Definitly Red.

The first came when the horse made history by becoming the first Yorkshire winner of Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase since Peter Easterby’s Cybrandian prevailed in 1987.

Again this win resonated with Cook because it was one of the races that he remembers from his childhood because it always signalled the reappearance of the top staying steeplechasers – and winter.

Definitly Red was then seen at his very best when successfully defending the Grade Two Many Clouds Chase at Aintree – “absolutely brilliant” to quote the jockey – before being beaten by the doughty Captain Redbeard in a two-runner ‘match’ at Kelso last month.

Initially disappointed by the outcome of this slowly-run race, the trip to Scotland represented a late change of plan by Malton-based Ellison – and Cook is confident the horse, now 10, will be all the sharper for this run.

“Brian thinks he has him in a lot better form this year. We have a good each-way chance and, hopefully, we can run into a place and pick up some prize money,” he added.

You can be assured that none will be trying as hard as Definitly Red – or Danny Cook – to bring the Gold Cup back to Yorkshire.

All in the name – the Definitly Red story...

THE spelling of Definitly Red is down to the writing of Irish point-to-point handler, Bryan Marshall, at the time of registration. He is by Definite Article out of The Red Wench – and it is said to be unlucky to change a horse’s name.

The winner of 14 out of 28 races, and nearly £400,000 in prize money, the horse is trained at Malton by Brian Ellison – one of a select number of people to have saddled more than 1,000 winners. One of eight children, his father was a Tyneside shipyard worker, while his mother worked as a hospital cleaner.

Definitly Red, pulled up in the 2017 Grand National when jockey Danny Cook’s saddle slipped, is owned by Phil Martin, who lives in Tickhill. The retired businessman – born in Sheffield – always promised himself a racehorse if he ever became successful and he did just that after selling his Midlands-based engine lubricant business in 2006. He and his wife Julie are increasingly successful owners and purchased their Gold Cup contender for £110,000 in November, 2013.

As for Cook, his first ride came at Bangor in August 2001.

His best season was in 2016-17 when he recorded 51 successes. He has won eight races on Definitly Red and his Cheltenham rides also include Sue Smith’s Grand National contender Vintage Clouds in Tuesday’s Ultima Chase.