Danny Cook has perhaps the opportunity of his lifetime on Saturday when, in only his second ride in the race, he partners likely favourite Definitly Red in the 170th Randox Health Grand National at Aintree.
Definitly Red’s case is advertised by the fact he will be running off a mark 10lb lower than if the handicapper had another chance to rate him after his runaway win in last month’s Grimthorpe Chase.
That Cook is 30 fences and four miles three furlongs from jump racing’s greatest prize is all the more remarkable given his upbringing in Romford, Essex.
“There are no horses,” he points out. “Just a lot of houses, and everyone’s a builder, something to do with the building trade, or, like my dad, a landscape gardener. I still go back and help him and my brother Tony through the summer when it’s quieter.”
His interest in the sport was initially sparked by his father and grandfather, who both liked a bet. “I grew up listening to them yelling at the telly, and that’s how I ride now,” he said. “They would sooner see you try and fail than never get there at all.”
His first trip to the races was in 1999, when, aged 15, he went to Aintree for Bobbyjo’s victory and it fanned the flicker of a flame, prompting him to write two letters; one to the Northern Racing School and the other to the Army.
Fate decreed that the racing school replied first but, he admits, in those early days, picking out horses’ hooves and putting a bit in their mouths terrified him.
However, Cook, 33, is one of the weighing-room survivors, which speaks volumes about not only his talent but his character, because normally the sport is quick to spit out those who dash their chances too often.
Before he had established himself, he quit several times to return home to help out his father. “I couldn’t get going,” he recalled. “It was hard to keep my weight down, riding just once a month. It was hard to make it pay and landscaping paid better. But I always thought there was more to life than landscaping. Watching on television, I’d wanted to get involved, but I never realistically thought I would make it.”
The turning point was when he joined the Pipe stable in the West Country. “I thought I’d give it one last go in a big yard and give myself a chance,” he recalls. “They were brilliant. They looked after me, gave me good rides, and good horses give you confidence and make you a better rider.”
He took off as an amateur rider in the 2008-9 season but his problems were not over, however. Three times in one year he committed the cardinal once-in-a-career sin of taking the wrong course – one, at Cheltenham, was his own fault, but the other two times he was following the leader – and while that is ancient enough history for him to joke about it now, a six-month drug ban after testing positive to cocaine in early 2015 is something less easily blotted from the copybook.
But he put his hands up, admitted it was a “stupid mistake”, and has moved on. His loyal supporters welcomed him back to the fold.
Cook’s only previous ride in the National was on Pablo de Charmil in 2010. “When I rode for Pipey in the race, I thought it was the pinnacle, a big deal that would probably be the high point of my career. He over-jumped and landed on his head at the first, nearly falling, and did exactly the same at the second but did fall. I’d have had a couple of other rides but I was banned one year and missed Neptune Equester in 2012 because of a broken leg.”
Now, Cook is riding the favourite. He has taken the past few days off, although he resumes at Carlisle today. He has not wasted that time, though.
“I’m not thinking of it as the National, I’m thinking about it as a normal race. I don’t want to get carried away with the build-up and I’ve got to the point where I want to get on with it and get down to the start. I’ve visualised every eventuality, a lot of times. Ideally, I’d like to ride him like last year’s winner, Rule The World, he’d like to pass a few late on”