'A Festival winner was all I dreamed about'
Prodigious jockey Bryan Cooper is closing in on his boyhood ambition, writes Ian McClean
I haven't been paying much attention to policemen lately but jockeys are certainly looking younger. There is a plate on the wall of the Keadeen Hotel on the fringe of Newbridge celebrating 35 years, from 1970 to 2005.
Of course that was eight years ago, but further racing memorabilia on the wall includes a portrait of Ragusa, which won the 1963 Irish Sweeps Derby across the road at the Curragh after the sensational last-second withdrawal of his odds-on Epsom conqueror Relko at the start.
If racing is defined by its past, then Bryan Cooper is far more likely to be defined by his future. Kerry's cherubic answer to William Buick, a friend on his Twitter feed claims that if one more person asks if she's over 16 she'll probably cry. Cooper is 20 but, in the same vain, if he turned out for Kerry minors this year I couldn't see the opposition lodging an objection.
Football and horses were all that ever meaningfully occupied the son of dentist and trainer Tom Cooper as a boy and it was always long odds-on that horse-racing would ultimately win out.
If there was even the remotest doubt, it was erased on his maiden visit to the Cheltenham Festival, in 2004, where his father trained the winner (his first ever) of the Festival Bumper, Total Enjoyment. The name certainly summarised the experience for the young boy from Tralee. "I remember racing up the chute as the horse was coming back in. The noise of the crowd. Everything."
He may have missed the celebrations as he remained behind with the babysitter that night when the adults went out. But the impression left was indelible as it was unforgettable. From then on at home, the back of the couch became the practice ground where he rode out countless finishes at an imaginary Cheltenham. "To ride a winner at the Festival was all I ever dreamed about after that," he says brightly.
Even before hitting his teens he began spending school holidays at Dessie Hughes' on the Curragh. Teachers at the CBS in Tralee were resigned at an early stage to losing the unequal struggle and he eventually left formal education for Kevin Prendergast's yard at 15. He only weighed seven-and-a-half stone when starting out with Prendergast and took his first racecourse ride at the Curragh on September 14, 2008.
"I only ever had a mind to be a jump jockey," he admits. "I was never really interested in the Flat." Mother Nature must have been paying attention to the young lad's wishes as she provided him with a sudden growth-spurt and, without a winner on the Flat, he switched his attention to the winter code and moved permanently to Dessie Hughes.
His first ride over jumps came almost exactly a year after his opening Flat ride. He didn't need to wait long for his first winner (October 29, 2009) which arrived, fittingly, for his father aboard Rossdara at Clonmel.
It is hardly surprising – observing Bryan Cooper's style – that he cites Paul Carberry first as his role-model growing up, or that a race-analyst at the time described Cooper's first victory on board a notably tricky mare as "polished". However, it wasn't all fairytales and magic wands for the Kerry lad as not long afterwards he crashed out at Gowran Park, broke a wrist, and spent eight weeks off the pitch. And so it was, despite having only a handful of rides, still claiming his full 7lb allowance, he got his first taste of the Festival in 2010 partnering Sonamix (for his dad) into a close fourth in the Fred Winter, having led into the straight.
He recalls: "The buzz, the noise of the crowd and the atmosphere. Bit different going out to the parade ring there than going out to the parade ring at Thurles on a Thursday."
His order-book rose to "still just two or three rides" for the 2011 Festival but last year Cooper had 14 mounts for a variety of trainers, including one for David Pipe.
He came closest to success with a second on White Star Line for his guv'nor in the Centenary, finding only last year's monster-improver Hunt Ball too good in the closing yards.
This season has been his best so far. With the yard in cracking form and demand for his services increasing, Cooper currently sits fifth in the jockey's championship on 53 winners. The only peers ahead of him are either attached to Willie Mullins' yard or ride for Gigginstown. Outside of leader Davy Russell, Cooper has had more rides than any other domestic jockey.
He has also managed a Cheltenham winner – on Action Master at the October meeting – and he is sharpening his pencil for this week where he will have 13 or 14 fresh opportunities to fulfil a young boy's dream. His best is undoubtedly Our Conor, a revelation since switching his attention to obstacles.
Unbeaten in three runs from his debut at Navan in November, he has simply gone from strength to strength and finds himself at the top of the Triumph Hurdle market.
Cooper, his partner in all three wins, is still looking for the flaws. "He jumps, he stays, and he has a turn of foot," says the jockey. What's not to like? Some whispers have questioned his stamina for the demands of the New Course, but Our Conor's pilot at least is unfazed. "He's been going on at the end of all his races so I don't see that as a problem," he adds. He pinpoints Nicky Henderson's Rolling Star as his main danger.
Amongst Cooper's many other possibilities next week he singles out Lyreen Legend for particular mention. Likelier for the RSA than the Jewson he should be a lot better than he showed in the PJ Moriarty at Leopardstown in February where he finished close-up in a blanket finish.
"After his unlucky fall at Christmas in the three miler he had been stood in his box for nearly a month so he'd done very little work before the Moriarty. So given his price I expect him to run very well," says Cooper.
White Star Line, in spite of running-up last year at the Festival, is actually lower in the ratings this time around. However, still a maiden over fences, he may struggle to get into his first preference race, the Byrne Group Plate and may consequently have to take the three-mile option.
Action Master returns to the scene of his October victory for the Pertemps Final but would prefer better ground. And Benefficient, a horse that has provided him with two Grade 1 successes in the last two years at unlikely odds both times, looks set to try a similar feat in the Arkle where he takes on 'The Invincibles', Simonsig and Overturn.
Cooper is about as optimistic as he was on those other two occasions. Cooper will travel over early for the Festival and this year shares a house close to the racecourse with Robbie Power, Davy Condon and Robbie McNamara, where minds will be firmly focused on the job.
Cooper will be on-course by 7.0 every morning – starting tomorrow – to ride out and ensure the final finessing is applied to the horses' preparation. The early starts are a contrast to the late night the young Kerryman has just suffered at home. He has yawned his way through the interview thus far, and pauses to explain.
His latest and last pre-Cheltenham engagement took place the previous night in his home town and, true to these things, concluded at 4.0am. Yet he still appeared to report for duty at dawn on the Curragh. It is a tingling reminder of the swashbuckling air that accompanies youth.
Does he feel pressure this time riding the favourite for a high-profile race like the Triumph? "I just took it like any other race," he replies genuinely, stifling another yawn.
But to win it would also turn his imaginary childhood Cheltenham, saddled on the back of the sofa at home, into an adult reality; and his boyhood dream into a piece of racing history.