Danny Cook could easily be mistaken by the unaware for a participant on a reprised version of the Channel 4 documentary ‘Faking It’. In the series, members of the public from one background are taught a surprising skill in order to outwit a judging panel, so a country public schoolboy passed himself off as a doorman, and a burger flipper masqueraded as a gourmet chef.
In the case of a landscape gardener’s son from Romford who had barely even seen a horse before attending the Northern Racing College, managing to become one of Yorkshire’s top National Hunt jockeys, this is no televisual role-playing.
Cook’s application, something of a pipe dream from a meeting in the school careers’ office, boiled down to experiencing racing from the other side of the metaphorical fence.
“My granddad and my dad would have a little bet at the weekend, watch it on TV and cheer them on while we were riding the sofas pretending to be jockeys,” Cook, who played for Leyton Orient as a youth, explains in a scene many will be familiar with.
“I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a footballer or as a boxer and I thought that I was young enough to learn something new.
“I used to love Norman Williamson, obviously Tony McCoy as well because he was so forceful and determined, he never knew when he was beaten.
“Norman was a waiting rider like Ruby Walsh, he knew the pace and what he had underneath him. I’m probably more on the lines of braindead and positive, so I don’t know who that puts me under!”
I’d never sat on a horse until I was nearly 17 – a bit of a late developer – but I like to think I caught up plenty quick enough
Swapping an upholstered steed for a real one proved different.
‘Once you get bitten by the horse bug, it’s hard to get away’
“I’d never sat on a horse until I was nearly 17 – a bit of a late developer – but I like to think I caught up plenty quick enough,” he says.
“I was scared of them until I went to the racing school, but once you get bitten by the horse bug, it’s hard to get away. It kind of happened straight away, when you start building up relationships with the horses.
“They look after you, teach you to walk and trot and stuff. I think I was quite quick to learn. Once we were trotting away, the same day I was on the gallops cantering.”
There have been ruts in the road, whether you know the 34-year-old’s back-story or not, as he passed his assessment at the NRC at the turn of the century and has been receiving only wide-ranging plaudits in recent seasons.
“I left racing for about 18 months and was back with my dad on the landscaping,” he says. “I was with little trainers who had only maybe seven or ten horses. It probably did me good in the long run but it was so tough to get going.
“I still wanted to give it one more go so I went to David Pipe’s as a stable lad and worked my way up. Riding nice horses helps, and David gave me a lot of confidence but I think I helped myself, really. I was very dedicated, tried hard and would do anything to try to get a ride. I don’t think anyone took me to one side and said, ‘Do this, do that’. I think I did it all my own way.”
Those few years as an amateur and conditional even yielded a Cheltenham Festival victory aboard Great Endeavour in the 2010 Byrne Group (now Brown Advisory and Merriebelle) Plate, but not long afterwards he again eared stagnation. Luckily, a lifeline came through Brian Ellison.
“Basically one of Brian’s owners, Dan Gilbert, had followed me and asked Brian if he could put me on. I didn’t know him, but he wanted me to ride them and we had a few nice winners. Brian said to me if I’m riding Dan’s, I can ride all of them up north. I saw it as a good opportunity to spread my wings.
“I was just about to lose my claim and we were coming to the summer, I’d had a bad fall and bust my collarbone, and I knew that other claiming lads were coming into the yard. Tom Scudamore was stable jockey, I wasn’t riding much other than for David and I really had no other contacts to keep me going. It seemed like a win-win situation for constant rides and a reliable income.”
The pair were to pick up plenty of small races as well as several early near-misses with Bothy in the 2011 Betfair Hurdle and Coral Cups. In seasons to come, the partnership with the shrewd Geordie has become a lasting one and Cook has also become first jockey to the Grand National-winning combination of Sue and Harvey Smith.
He insists: “Brian’s very ‘say what he thinks’, shall we say, but he’s been nothing but good to me. He lets me ride how I find the horse and doesn’t put me under any set instructions.
“I think the thing is that he keeps them fresh all the time, they’re never really overworked, they never get too tired and seem to hold their form well through the season.
“With Brian, he’s quite a laid-back person, it probably rubs off onto the horses and the staff. Nobody’s getting too stressed. He can train anything from a three-mile chaser to a five-furlong sprinter. I don’t know what he does but he seems to do it well!”
I just felt embarrassed and that I’d let everybody down but when I spoke to Sue and Brian, they were keen for me to put it behind me, get back as soon as I could and prove what I could do. It’s nice I’m repaying their faith now
In early 2015, though, and in the midst of his best season, came another major hitch. In what Cook confessed was a dreadful error of judgement, he tested positive for cocaine after a night out and was given a six-month ban. He says he again wondered briefly whether his career was over.
“Yeah, there was [a moment],” he says. “I just felt embarrassed and that I’d let everybody down but when I spoke to Sue and Brian, they were keen for me to put it behind me, get back as soon as I could and prove what I could do. It’s nice I’m repaying their faith now.
“Luckily the first couple of rides back both won, which put me in their good books. It’s bad, but you either crawl into the hole or stand up and be counted, and the show goes on.”
He resumed with renewed purpose, landing the Rehearsal Chase on the Smiths’ Wakanda and getting the keys to a promising hurdler at Ellison’s called Definitly Red, who was to return him to the limelight for better reasons.
Definitly Red was in handicaps this time last year, cutting a swathe through the Rowland Meyrick and the Grimthorpe Chase. The chestnut went off at 10-1 for the National, only for his chance to be ruined at Becher’s first time, with Cook almost catapulted out of the plate and managing a remarkable rodeo act through the next couple of fences.
“A horse fell in front of me and as he jinked left to avoid the faller, the saddle slipped under his belly,” he recalls. “I had no choice other than to pull up, it was too far gone.
“It was very frustrating. The thing is, you ride it so many times in your head, visualise it and all the different scenarios that could happen. You’re always on the look out but the one thing I didn’t visualise was my tack slipping.
“I had all the family up, they went out for drinks and food in Liverpool but I went straight home and sulked. I wouldn’t like to say too much but I don’t think he’d have fallen. He was topping them and going long, it’s just whether he was good enough. I think he probably might have been.”
Determination has clearly been at the centre of Cook’s resurgence and it is a trait recognised by his agent, Bruce Jeffrey. “He’s just very professional,” Jeffrey says. “I’ve represented Ryan Mania and James Reveley, and they are nothing if not professional, but there’s something about Danny.”
So where does Cook think his inner steel comes from? “That’s from my family,” he replies immediately. “My dad always says, ‘We never get nothing for free Dan, so if you want it you have to go and work for it’. The first holiday I went on when I was 16, I had to work for six weeks to save the money up, pay for it myself. I’ve always had it that you can’t be waiting for it to come to you.”
Cook lives the quiet life in the small cathedral city of Ripon, which provides easy access to riding out twice a week at the Smith premises high on Bingley Moor, and a shorter trip for one morning at Ellison’s. Both work and location make it harder to follow his beloved Arsenal any more and his main sporting buzz away from racing comes from watching eight-year-old daughter Isobel competing in triathlons. Son George is two, and a third junior Cook is on the way.
“Basically I want to keep Sue and Brian happy,” he says. “I try to fill in round them. It’s tough to make a living through the summer, my trainers don’t have many in, so I go and do a bit of building back home.
“Ultimately racing on quicker ground doesn’t help, but at the end of the day I want good horses in good races for good money. When you’re struggling to make it pay anyway, it’s not worth carrying on to win a £1,500 race.”
Much like Paul Mulrennan, the successful Flat jockey from west London based with Michael Dods near Darlington, Cook likes being an adopted northerner. The brighter lights, though, might eventually come calling, along with the patios and garden walls.
“My wife Kirsty and I went to the same school together and our families both grew up in Essex,” he says. “Realistically I probably would go back there once my career finishes. My dad has just passed the business on to my brother now, and I enjoy it, it’s something different and nice to freshen up.
“But I do feel like Yorkshire is my main home now, I love the racing and being a jockey up here, looking forward to the rides you get. To have achieved what I’ve achieved is more than I could ever have wanted.”
‘I think I’ll win the Gold Cup on Definitly Red’
The jockey is in confident mood about a horse who has gone from strength to strength this season.
“I wasn’t even allowed to get on him when he first came into the yard, I think Richard Johnson and Will Kennedy rode him in his first couple of wins for us,” Cook explains. “It all came about one day at Haydock, neither Richard nor Will were there, so I got the call-up and finished second in the £100,000 fixed brush hurdle. I’ve had the ride on him nearly ever since.
“Brian has a lot of good results with Richard Johnson, with those horses you want to have the best available jockey, but I took the opportunity with both hands and never let go.
“To be honest, I expected him to be this good. I’ve always said to Brian since that day at Haydock that he’s the best I’ve ever ridden. Ultimately he had to go and prove it, and I’m glad he has. Hopefully he’ll be competitive in a Grade 1 now.
“He’s not overly big but he’s got a very big stride for a little horse. He’s lovely to ride – very laid-back, very low – and the more you ask of him, the more he’ll give you.
“I’ve ridden a Cheltenham Festival winner and I won a Peter Marsh Chase on Our Vic, who was top-class back in the day, but the Cotswold Chase on Definitly Red was the best for me so far.
“The Gold Cup is the plan. I think I’m going to win, obviously, but time will tell. The thing is, I do have a lot of confidence in him. I have to go out there thinking I’m going to win. If I think I’ll lose, I will lose. So a positive mindset and hopefully it will pan out.”
Cook adds: “Obviously, it will be a lot more difficult if he went back to the National with another few pounds on his back, but if he went there or to the Bowl at Aintree, I’m sure he’d have a good chance.”