O'Leary's top gig a natural progression for Cooper
Stylish Kerry rider destined to be a star ever since he spectacularly burst onto the scene
Bryan Cooper's meteoric ascent looks set to graduate to the next level following Michael O'Leary's confirmation that the gifted 21-year-old will take over as the retained rider to his influential Gigginstown House Stud team.
The Ryanair chief executive had informed Davy Russell at Punchestown on New Year's Eve that his contract would not be renewed, but he hinted yesterday at a reversal of roles, indicating Russell would continue to be an option behind Cooper, who had effectively been operating as the reigning champion jockey's deputy for the past two seasons.
"We reached an agreement with Bryan Cooper this afternoon and he becomes our No 1 jockey with effect from next Monday," O'Leary told the trade paper's wesbite racingpost.com. "I expect and hope it will be a long-term deal, though like everything else it will be subject to an annual review. We're very pleased we have got the right man.
"He's young but will continue to learn on the job. Bryan will ride all of our horses, as agreed with all of our trainers. He will still be based with Dessie Hughes on the Curragh and ride out for him on mornings we don't need him. I have spoken to Davy too and we will be using him as extensively as we can, especially when we have multiple runners."
How that dynamic plays out will be interesting, as Russell was eschewed for Gigginstown's two Naas runners tomorrow when declarations were made yesterday morning. Cooper has rides in both races, with Gigginstown trainers Noel Meade and Willie Mullins using stable jockeys Paul Carberry and Ruby Walsh, despite Russell being available.
Still, the famously hard-working 34-year-old maestro will know what he has to do to maintain his status as a top-tier jockey. For Kerry-born Cooper, this is new territory, albeit it appears the most natural of progressions for the self-assured prodigy.
His barnstorming emergence over the past few seasons culminated in his putting unspoken and unprecedented pressure on Russell. When opportunity knocked, especially for Gigginstown, the instinctively stylish pilot has never been found wanting.
The net result was that he was immediately made a long odds-on favourite to succeed Russell. Failure to appoint him would have been a bigger shock than the decision to end Russell's tenure in the hot seat. It was a one-horse race.
That is a tribute to the stunning manner in which he has muscled his way into the elite ranks of the jockeys' table, where turnover is extremely rare.
Russell, Walsh, Carberry, Barry Geraghty, Andrew Lynch and more recently Paul Townend are mainstays, but Cooper has disrupted the old order with three top-10 finishes, including last season's career-best fifth.
For someone long earmarked as champion jockey material, there is a temptation to conclude that he has definitively earned his place among such a revered band now that he is the champion owner's first-choice rider, but he will know that this is a beginning. It is not a final destination by any means, and the loss of Gigginstown's Sir Des Champs to injury yesterday was a timely reminder of how cruelly fickle and precarious the racing game can be.
O'Leary says that Cooper will "learn on the job", but he will now be judged by results. Winning jump racing's most cherished prizes is the goal.
Few have stepped up to the plate with such unerring accuracy and poise in recent times. It is still less than two years since Cooper rode his first Grade One winner aboard Tony Martin's Benefficient, the horse that then secured him a famous debut Cheltenham Festival success last March.
Cooper came of age in spectacular style over the last two days of the premier Festival, departing the scene with three winners after a double on the final afternoon courtesy of Our Conor's Triumph Hurdle rout and Ted Veale's impressive County Hurdle coup.
With Russell unable to ride in Britain due to injury, Cooper then got the nod to ride First Lieutenant at Aintree. He had coaxed some breathtaking leaps out of the same horse en route to finishing third in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury the previous November, when a more refined steer might have conserved his willing partner's energy more efficiently.
Come Liverpool, he rode with less abandon. The horse again fenced exhilaratingly, but Cooper was learning fast and his more measured tactics saw him only lead after the last fence en route to victory. It was a performance that confirmed his status as Russell's heir apparent, though few envisaged he would be promoted quite so soon.
When First Lieutenant reappeared at Punchestown in October, Cooper inexplicably saw off both him and Roi Du Mee to score in Gigginstown's third silks on Toner D'Oudairies for Gordon Elliott. Then in Down Royal's Champion Chase, Russell stuck with First Lieutenant, and Cooper again stole the show with another stellar front-running steer on Roi Du Mee. This time, Elliott's game nine-year-old was the 12/1 outsider of the field. Unwittingly or otherwise, Cooper's flawless turns were turning up the heat on Russell.
All of a sudden, it is Cooper who will hold the double-edged sword that is choosing which horse to ride when Gigginstown run more than one in the marquee events. Once his choice is made, he must then deliver with the same frequency that he has up to now.
As an instinctively laid-back individual, there's no reason to believe he won't, though it is a different reality. It is one thing to ride without a care in the world when you are operating as a super-sub, quite another to do so when you have the responsibility of leading the line.
Remember, when Jamie Spencer was installed as No 1 at Ballydoyle, he was a 23-year-old with a Midas touch who had been the go-to man for both Aidan O'Brien and Godolphin. Few predicted the pressure of the job would get to him in the manner it did. He admits now the job came too soon, so there is no way of knowing how an individual will react to this sort of situation.
By the same token, this is the sort of gig that Cooper has looked destined to fill since he first burst on to the scene, claiming the conditional jockeys' title with a record 37 winners in 2011. His father Tom, who has twice masterminded Cheltenham Festival triumphs with Total Enjoyment and Forpadydeplasterer, reckons he began honing his riding technique on the back of the couch when he still a toddler.
Cooper Jnr cites leading Total Enjoyment back into the hallowed Cotswold enclosure under fellow Kerryman Jim Culloty as an awe-inspired 11-year-old in 2004 as the moment he realised what he wanted to do with his life.
He landed in Hughes' Osborne Lodge stables on the Curragh in 2009 via Kevin Prendergast's, and no one has done more to help him realise his ambition than the former jockey who rode Davy Lad to Gold Cup glory in 1977.
When it became apparent to Hughes this week that he would soon lose first dibs on his protege, he said: "It would be a good job for him, but a big blow for me. It's taken me four years to make him, he's matured now and he's at his best."
That certainly seems to be the general consensus. Mol an Oige agus...
Bryan Cooper factfile
Born: August 8, 1992.
From: Farmers Bridge, Tralee, Co Kerry.
First jumps ride: Kerry's Eye (T Cooper), Kilbeggan, September 11, 2009.
First jumps winner: Rossdara (T Cooper), Clonmel, October 29, 2009
Seasonal jumps tallies (GB & Ire): 4, 37, 36, 61, 32 (to date).
Big-race winners: Raz De Maree (2012 Munster & Cork Nationals);
Benefficient (2012 Deloitte Novice Hurdle, 2013 Arkle Novice Chase & 2013 Dial-A-Bet Chase);
Our Conor (2013 Spring Juvenile & Triumph Hurdles);
Ted Veale (2013 Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle);
First Lieutenant (2013 Betfred Bowl); Special Tiara (2013 Maghull Novices' Chase);
Roi Du Mee (2013 JNWine.com Champion Chase).