Some jump jockeys are bred for the game. They grow up on a farm or in a stable, race ponies as soon as they can sit straight in a saddle and then move on to the local hunt. Danny Cook is not one of them.
“I’ve been brought up with punters,” he said here on Friday. “It’s the way I grew up. My dad had a bet and my grandad had a bet, so I grew up listening to them shouting at the telly and that’s how I kind of ride now. They’d rather see you try and fail than never get there. I still get some abusive messages on Twitter, as everyone does, but a lot of it’s positive and I think a lot of the punters do like me.”
These are reassuring words for the countless once-a-year punters who are expected to make Cook and his mount Definitly Red the favourites for the Grand National at Aintree next weekend. Cook is a punter too, or at any rate he was 18 years ago, when his first trip to a racecourse at the age of 15 turned out to be the beginning of a very unlikely round-trip for the son of a landscape gardener from Romford.
“It’s the race that’s passed down the generations,” Cook says, “going round to your grandad’s to sit there and watch it. The first track I ever went to was Aintree, to watch the Grand National. That gave me my first real look into racing and gave me the spark to get into it and apply to the racing school. I had the [10-1] winner as well, so that got me well and truly hooked.”
As Bobbyjo and Paul Carberry crossed the line in 1999, Cook was as close to a racehorse as he had ever been in his life. Nearly two decades later the 15-year-old face in the crowd will go to post on Grand National day and millions of pounds will go with him.
It has not been an easy ride at times. A six-month suspension after a positive test for cocaine in early 2015 is the ugliest blot on his record but he also managed to take the wrong course no fewer than three times in the early part of his career. The most embarrassing of those incidents came at Cheltenham, when he was leading the field aboard the top-class Our Vic in a high-profile handicap chase, but after serving a 28-day ban Cook steered the same horse to victory at 20-1 in another valuable contest on his first ride back.
Inevitably there have been injuries too. Another unusual entry on Cook’s CV is that he once completed a two-mile race with a broken leg. “I was kicked before the start,” he says, “It broke my leg but I still rode in the race and the horse actually ran well to finish fifth. But I knew when I got off that it was clicking inside the boot and it was pretty nasty.
“But these things spur you on. It’s not just the adrenaline, it’s everything about it, being part of the whole racing theme, and I just love being a jockey. I love it so much that I just keep pushing myself to do better and every time I get on a horse I give it 110%.”
A six-month ban is a big obstacle for any jockey to overcome but it is a testament to Cook’s determination that two years later he is poised to ride 50 winners in a season for the first time.
“I made the error and I had to do the time,” Cook says, “and I was keen to put things back right when I got back, doing what I love to do. I’ve always seemed to make things hard for myself, whether it was that or getting injured or one thing or another, but I seem to thrive on the comeback and just work even harder when I get knocked down to get back to where I want to be.”
Definitly Red is the form horse in next week’s race, the pick of the weights after a convincing success in one of the main National trials at Doncaster in early March, but an obvious choice for many casual and superstitious punters too.
“All the Liverpudlians like getting behind the reds,” Cook says, “and when my dad started up his business when he was younger, all his trucks had to be red because that was his lucky colour. Now I’m riding a horse called Definitly Red in the Grand National.
“Realistically, on the ratings he is a good thing and I still think he’s better than that mark as well. He’s got a massive, massive chance and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s the Grand National and I could quite happily retire and never worry about it again if he wins. But I think, if he does win the National this year, you’d be looking forward to him for the Cheltenham Gold Cup next year. I think he’s that good, this horse, so I won’t be retiring just yet.”
Chelmsford 5.45 Hannington 6.15 Bahar 6.45 Par Three 7.15 Malaysian Boleh 7.45 Carigrad 8.15 Zilza 8.45 Tasaaboq
Doncaster 1.50 Mobsta 2.25 Sacred Act 3.00 Toscanini 3.35 Withernsea (nap) 4.10 Almane 4.45 Move To The Front 5.20 Wasatch Range 5.50 Deeley’s Double
Kempton 1.30 Many Waters 2.05 Fire Fighting 2.40 Dutch Golden Age 3.15 Final 3.50 Global Alexander 4.25 Brief Visit 5.00 Canadian Diamond
Stratford 1.40 Excellent Team 2.10 I’ll Be Your Clown 2.45 Bourbon Prince 3.20 Some Buckle 3.55 Asum 4.30 Le Braye 5.05 Ballycoe 5.35 Arakhan
Uttoxeter 1.55 Dragon Khan 2.30 Indian Brave 3.05 Silverhow 3.40 Allbarnone (nb) 4.15 Mash Potato 4.50 Lord Bryan 5.25 Farbreaga 5.55 Black Sam Bella