'Big-race' quality has put Cooper in the top bracket
Published 22/04/2013 | 05:00
On Saturday, Bryan Cooper will sign off on a whirlwind campaign that has seen him come of age in spectacular style.
By then, he will have earned a moment's pause for reflection. It could be a long moment.
When 2013 dawned, the fresh-faced 20-year-old rising star from Tralee had just a solitary Grade One win to his name. His meteoric ascent, predicated on a record 37-strong haul that saw him crowned champion conditional jockey this time two years ago, had already been widely acknowledged as that of a potential future champion.
Few, though, really envisaged his graduation to the higher echelons being quite so immediate and definitive as it has been. In the space of two intoxicating days at Cheltenham in March, Cooper burst into the racing's world's wider consciousness with a barnstorming Festival treble that was spearheaded by Our Conor's facile Triumph Hurdle rout.
Then First Lieutenant shook off his 'nearly' tag to secure a famous Betfred Bowl win at Aintree, and Cooper netted a second Liverpool Grade One by steering Special Tiara to a shock win in the Maghull Novices' Chase two days later. By the time he guided Rare Bob into an excellent fifth in the Grand National, he was an established 'big race' pilot.
His arrival as a genuine riding sensation brought to mind a popular Ernest Hemingway quote from the novel 'The Sun Also Rises', when the debauched drunk Mike Campbell is asked how he went bankrupt. "Two ways," he replied. "Gradually, then suddenly."
The manner in which Cooper's stock has rocketed requires an inverse interpretation of that scenario, but the essential point is the same. For all that this self-assured prodigy was universally earmarked for the top, in open competition where Grade Ones are a precious commodity, even he wouldn't have been so bold as to predict five of them in 10 weeks.
"Obviously you dream about riding Cheltenham Festival winners," says the Tralee native, "but I thought I'd have to wait a while before my time would come. I got my first Grade One winner last year, and I said to myself at the start of the season, if I could ride another one this time, that'd be great. I would have settled for a similar sort of season right from the start."
Cooper's bull market surge began somewhat aptly with Benefficient's 20-length Arkle Chase victory at Leopardstown in January. Tony Martin's old-fashioned ball of a chaser had carried him to that first Grade One win in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle last year, and he also then went on to provide him with the opening leg of his Cheltenham treble in the Jewson Chase.
Our Conor confirmed his nascent potential with a superlative Spring Hurdle triumph back at the Foxrock venue in February to bring Cooper's haul of career Grade Ones to three. By then, his momentum was gathering pace, but the composed way in which he morphed into racing's equivalent of the voracious 'impact sub' to double that tally was still quite staggering.
While Our Conor was already his ride, the mount on Special Tiara only came about when Andrew Lynch picked up a knock at Aintree, and it might not have come his way at all had Philip Enright – who was in the saddle on the two previous occasions that Henry de Bromhead's horse had won – not been committed to ride for his boss Robert Tyner at Navan.
Fate's fingerprints are also all over Cooper's association with First Lieutenant. For Mouse Morris's bold-jumping son of Presenting's first three outings of the season, champion jockey Davy Russell, who has the pick of Gigginstown House Stud's battalions, prioritised others.
First Lieutenant kept hitting the crossbar in his absence, but Cooper excelled, in particular when they got mugged by Tidal Bay in the Lexus. Come Cheltenham, when Russell didn't have to divide loyalties, he was diagnosed with a punctured lung before the Ryanair Chase.
Morris made a beeline for Cooper, the horse again ran well to chase up Cue Card, and the incidental arrangement finally reaped the reward it deserved when British racing's medics denied Russell permission to ride at Aintree. Having by now refined the gung-ho exuberance of the Hennessy for more measured tactics, Cooper made Liverpool his own with an exquisite mix of characteristic panache and fearless conviction to match that of his brave steed.
In a way, you are now almost inclined to think of Cooper and First Lieutenant as a de facto pairing, but that's not the case. Russell still has first dibs, though few expect him to eschew Sir Des Champs come Wednesday's Tote.com Gold Cup.
All told, Gigginstown's faith in Cooper is a resounding endorsement. AP McCoy trumped him and Paul Townend for the spare on Sir Des Champs at Cheltenham, but, on a shortlist of potential eventual successors to Russell, Cooper would surely be top of the page every time.
"They have given me so many chances," he says of Gigginstown's Michael and Eddie O'Leary. "Especially in Cheltenham, where there were so many good jockeys available, they gave me chances, so I am grateful for that."
Of course, Cooper had put himself in the position to be considered, and he hasn't passed up too many of the opportunities that have come his way. Barry Connell's purchase of Our Conor will see Danny Mullins assume that plum gig, but Cooper can stand aside safe in the knowledge that he was a perfect fit for such a precociously talented animal.
"It's a big loss," he admits of the deeds change, "but it's not as if I'm getting jocked off for doing something wrong. That's just the way it is – I wish them the best of luck with him."
With a deep voice and droll demeanour, Cooper's resemblance to his father Tom is palpable. Back in 2009, he landed at Osborne Lodge stables on the Curragh via Kevin Prendergast's, and soon earned the trust of Dessie Hughes to effectively fulfil the role of stable jockey.
It was a position that other good riders had struggled to shine in, but Cooper, whose Kerry heritage and youthful swagger combine for a potent measure of self-confidence, hasn't taken a backward step. He sits behind only Russell, Ruby Walsh and Townend in the professional jockeys' championship, with amateur kingpin Patrick Mullins also four ahead. Paul Carberry and Barry Geraghty are his closest pursuers, so he is surrounded by champions past and present.
"Dad was nearly more proud than I was after I rode my first Cheltenham winner, never mind the third one," he confides. "It was always my dream to ride a Festival winner there, so it was great to have the bit of luck and I certainly enjoyed it – you could be waiting 10 years for another Festival winner. You don't know what's going to happen, so you have to take every day as it comes."
The fact that his Festival legacy began the very day JT McNamara's career met its end might inform that mature sense of perspective. Cooper is also alive to the challenge of consolidating his new-found status, aware that staying there is often harder than getting there.
"You have to keep improving," he says. "I have ridden those big winners, but that doesn't mean I don't have to improve. Dessie has told me as well. Like, I am only 20, so I still have a lot of catching up to do with the likes of Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty. It's fine riding winners at everyday meetings, but I'd like to stay riding in the big races for as long as I can and hopefully have plenty more success in them."
Expect to see that ambition manifest itself in a few more poised turns over the course of the week. Punchestown awaits the young man with the Midas touch.