Julia Brooke: Chasing the dream

Horses from Julia Brooke's yard on the gallops on Middleham Moor
Horses from Julia Brooke's yard on the gallops on Middleham Moor
  • Not many women take up training racehorses in their 50s, but Julia Brooke has always done things differently. Tom Richmond trots along to meet her.
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Julia Brooke is the first to admit that training racehorses is “a ridiculous thing to do”. She’s been up most of the night tending to a sick horse and a broken down van – and the rain clouds are foreboding as she muck outs the stables and prepares her string of horses for their morning gallop. Yet she’s been waiting a lifetime for this chance and radiates enthusiasm as she talks about her bold decision, in her early 50s, to become one of the newest additions to North Yorkshire’s training ranks at a time when many yards are struggling to make ends meet.

She’s blessed to have a supportive family – her eldest son Henry, a former champion conditional jockey who has ridden in the last three Grand Nationals, is on hand as he rebuilds his career; her youngest son Danny is the resident farmer who also rides out most mornings; and her father John is a constant source of wisdom.

Henry Brooke, grandfather John Platts ,  mum Julia Brooke and brother Danny Brooke  at Brough Farm, Middleham

Henry Brooke, grandfather John Platts , mum Julia Brooke and brother Danny Brooke at Brough Farm, Middleham

The atmospheric Brough Farm, the former home of dual Scottish National-winning trainer Roddy Armytage, might be one of the country’s smallest stables – Mrs Brooke is only licensed to train 11 horses at Middleham – but it has already yielded three winners for this single-minded family with the prospect of more to come as the 2015-16 jumps campaign gathers pace.

“It’s a ridiculous thing to do, but I love it,” says Mrs Brooke. “It keeps us close. My dad comes home every day. He’s 81 and he mucks out and does all the maintenance. There was a lot of tin sheeting and rickety buildings, but we’re getting there. But I’ll tell you what gives me most pleasure – being an affordable trainer to nice owners. There are a lot of people who can’t afford to have a big trainer, but they are really nice people who have a budget and horse racing is a passion. It’s nice for them to be part of us and us to be part of them.”

She means it. “We try, don’t we?” pipes up her youngest son. There’s spontaneous laughter around the kitchen table inside the farmhouse. They agree “We try” should be the family – and stable – motto. “We nicked it off Mark Johnston whose branding is ‘Always Trying’,” adds Danny by way of explanation.

This is the same Classic-winning Mark Johnston who regularly saddles more than 200 winners a year from his nearby stables. And, though the respective yards are separated by little more than a short canter, the contrast between the respective operations could not be greater. For, while Johnston trains blueblood thoroughbreds thanks to the patronage of, among others, Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed, the Brooke family are on the constant lookout for willing owners who would like to join a syndicate and own a leg in a racehorse. This is jump racing at the grassroots.

Success has been hard-earned. Born in West Bretton, near Wakefield, Mrs Brooke rode her first pony Lindy when she was just two – “she was pretty useless” – and became a regular presence on the Pony Club, showjumping and point-to-point circuit. She wanted horses, and racing in particular, to be her life but the sport was still very male-dominated in the early 1980s in spite of the pioneering Jenny Pitman’s Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National successes.

Like the redoubtable Mrs P, Mrs Brooke has had to overcome scepticism. And, like the “first lady of racing”, Mrs Brooke is specialising in cast-offs.

“When I was starting out, it was quite difficult getting into a yard because they were all boys,” she recalled. “Eventually I offered to go and work for Bill Elsey at Malton for free. My parents offered to pay my board and lodgings, and I said I would work exactly like one of the lads.

“He said ‘If you’re not getting paid, you can have the weekends off’. I said ‘No, I want to be treated like everyone else and work the same hours’. By week two, Bill came out with an envelope with a little money and said that I ought to apply for my amateur rider’s licence.”

It soon became clear that she had a particular affinity with difficult horses. One was a rogue by the name of Robbies Park. “That thing will kill you,” she was told before finishing a second in a point-to-point near Scarborough at odds of 100-1. “We led all the way apart from across the winning line,” said the rueful rider.

Her enthusiasm was further fired when she met her husband Glen who was a farrier to the all-conquering Michael Dickinson stable at Harewood when the trainer saddled the first five horses home in the 1983 Gold Cup.

“That really inspired me to train... the atmosphere, the set-up, the success. It was just such an infectious place. I think the horses even caught that winning bug. There is a vibe to a good yard – they were just exceptionally good.”

Yet, while Mrs Brooke continued to be involved with horses at the family’s pre-training yard as she raised her two young children before the break-up of her marriage, it was only when her eldest son became a jockey of some repute that the desire to seek her own stables began to take hold again.

For, while she was looking for the right location and then persuading the British Horseracing Authority to grant a licence, Henry’s career was hitting rock bottom. Top conditional in 2012-13, a title won previously by the likes of AP McCoy, and tipped to be a future champion, the hype and expectation took their toll. He fell out of favour at Grand National-winning trainer Donald McCain’s yard, where he had made his mark, and his confidence ebbed away as the winners dried up. It did not help that the stable was struggling. “It was a nightmare,” he said before making the decision to return to his Yorkshire roots and forging contacts with the smaller yards.

It’s working – Brooke, 24, is back in love with racing, riding winners on a regular basis and relishing the chance of working for his mother while forging new contacts.“I used to be really nervous watching Henry, but now I am just critical,” says Mrs Brooke. “She is but I don’t mind it,” retorts the Tadcaster-born jockey.

“I’m the one you ask for advice because I’m honest,” replies her son before some friendly banter on who has the final say over riding instructions.

“It’s only Henry who knows how a horse feels. I’ll grant him that,” concedes the trainer as diplomatic relations are restored

This conversation was emblematic of the family exchanges which preceded the fateful decision to buy Stags Leap who provided Mrs Brooke with her first licensed winner when prevailing at Cartmel in May with Henry in the saddle. Owned by the jockey’s grandfather and uncle, the family only acquired the horse on the insistence of the rider who told his relations not to return from Doncaster Sales under any circumstances without Stags Leap when the gelding went under the hammer more than 18 months ago.

He knew the horse had potential – he’d ridden it to victory at Kelso three years ago – and knew Stags Leap had “a right little engine” that could be reignited with some of the Brooke family’s famed TLC.

“When I saw the horse, it flew at my Uncle Billy and tore the sale catalogue out of his hand,” said Mrs Brooke.”I phoned Henry. ‘I can’t buy this thing Henry’, I told him. ‘It’s awful, it’s savage’. ‘Just buy it. Don’t you come back without it’,” he said.

After the family extended their budget to £1,800, the jockey would like to think his judgement was vindicated by back-to-back wins at Cartmel earlier this summer. As Brooke instructs Sarah Scott, the yard’s newly-appointed assistant, and fellow rider John Kington before the morning gallop, it is clear that he is in his element. Like mother, like son...

Approaching his 25th birthday, he relishes his dual role as rider and bloodstock agent – he’s particularly taken by a newly-acquired grey called Spifer who he has sold to new owners – while Bradbury, another new recruit, was a knockdown £5,000 purchase having cost £75,000 when much younger. “He keeps Mum busy because he’s a hypochondriac but he’s perfect for her,” says Brooke.

He was particularly pleased when Carna Ross won for his mother at Cartmel’s August meeting – it was the stable’s first win for outside owners. “There’s a lot of one-to-one with the horses here, and people like Sarah, John and Joe Colliver, another jockey, are invaluable,” he adds. “With the big yards, the big owners want the big winners and there’s pressure. We have none of that.” His mother concurs. “We treat every horse as an individual,” says Julia Brooke as she puts the previous evening’s diesel leak from her horse box to one side.

“It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. When Stags Leap won for my dad and uncle, ridden by Henry and led up by Danny, I couldn’t have been prouder. I’m welling up just thinking about it. Days like that, it makes it all so worthwhile.”