Thursday 20 June 2019

The highs and lows in the life of Bryan

28 December 2014; Michael O'Leary from the Gigginstown House Stud with jockey Bryan Cooper after winning the Lexus Steeplechase with Road To Riches. Leopardstown Christmas Festival, Leopardstown, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
28 December 2014; Michael O'Leary from the Gigginstown House Stud with jockey Bryan Cooper after winning the Lexus Steeplechase with Road To Riches. Leopardstown Christmas Festival, Leopardstown, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

The Cheltenham Festival is almost upon us. The blue-ribbon event of National Hunt Racing will begin on Tuesday and as it approaches, past memories will begin to re-surface in our thoughts.

For some, that memory could be your great escape from your office to catch the Gold Cup. For others, it could be a betting slip that made you or broke you.

For Tralee jockey Bryan Cooper his memories are much closer to the heart of the festival; memories from down in the parade ring and out on the track.

Cooper's bank of memories from Prestbury Park are of elation and devastation.

Bryan's first precious memory of the festival was in 2004. Aged 11, his father Tom, who was a syndicate owner and trainer of Total Enjoyment, allowed him to lead around the horse. That day turned into something magical for the Cooper family as Total Enjoyment galloped home as the winner of the Champion Bumper.

Nine years later, Bryan grabbed the attention of the horse racing world, experiencing a euphoric feeling that comes with riding three Cheltenham winners in two days. He claimed the Novices' Chase on Benefficient, the Triumph Hurdle on Our Conor and the County Handicap Hurdle on Ted Veale.

The still young Cooper could have easily been fooled into thinking that the Cheltenham Festival could only produce great joyful moments for him.

That all changed last year when his Cheltenham buzz was numbed. He suffered a heavy fall off Clarcam in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle resulting in a compound fracture to his tibia and fibula bones in his left leg.

His most recent memory is an unwanted one, quite a nerve-wrecking experience at that.

"I did get a fright the day he had the bad fall at Cheltenham," Tom says of his son's fall. "I saw him get lots of falls prior to that but that was the first time I actually got a fright."

The break was described as "the worst fracture I have ever seen in a lower limb" by Chief Medical Officer of the Turf Club, Dr. Adrian McGoldrick. A statement that Bryan himself was quick to refute and play down.

"It was bad but it wasn't that bad to be honest; the press blew it up a bit. It was a bad enough break and it took its time but it's fine now, thank god," says Bryan, who had to get a steal rod put into his lower limb.

The jockey was out of action for seven months after that fall and went through an extensive rehabilitation routine under the guidance of Enda King in the Santry Sport Clinic.

"When I was out (injured with a broken leg) I spent a lot of time in the Santry Sports Clinic and since then I have been going to the gym more than I used to do. I do plenty of cycling and work on the rowing machines. I can't do much running because of my leg and I also do small bits of core work but nothing too serious.

"It was a set programme and you were doing different things each day, three days a week. Myself, Mikey Fogarty and Ruby Walsh were there so we would work together some days which made it a bit easier," he explained.

Rehabilitating up in Santry three days a week kept him busy during the lay-off along with travelling up and down to his home just outside Ballyseedy. He felt fortunate that it was summertime and that he got an opportunity to follow Kerry's championship games and enjoy holidays in Spain and Portugal.

With more time on his hands, he managed to get back to follow his first love again.

"I have a big interest in show jumping and I went to the RDS and a couple of other shows as well just to keep the mind going," said the 22-year-old.

"(Being out injured) wouldn't be great for the head or that but it is just something you have to get on with. There is nothing you can do about it when it happens. You have to just think about those great horses that are there for you when you come back," said the former Tralee CBS student.

He displayed enormous character and resolve to recover so well mentally and physically from such an injury, something that Ted Walsh alluded to over Christmas following his amazing four Grade One winners in four days at the Leopardstown Festival on Clarcam, Lieutenant Colonel, Road To Riches and Don Poli.

Unfortunately one of the most influential people in Bryan's career, horse trainer Dessie Hughes, passed away in November. Bryan spent his summer holidays in Hughes' yard before the latter, along with Tom Cooper, decided it would be beneficial for the young jockey to spend some time with flat trainer Kevin Prendergast before he got his growth spurt. At 17 years of age, Bryan moved back to Hughes' yard.

"I wouldn't be in this position if it wasn't for him (Dessie Hughes). He was a very big supporter of mine. He was there at the start and kept supporting me along the way," said Cooper, who is now the no.1 jockey at Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud.

The jockey also credited his father for where he is today.

"It was always jumping I wanted to do, obviously Dad was a jump trainer and he had plenty of horses at home. He was a big help for and he supported me the whole way through."

Bryan grew up known as the son of the renowned horse trainer Tom Cooper. Now Bryan has earned his own recognition and the tables have turned with Tom now getting accustomed to being known as, the father of multiple Grade 1 winning jockey Bryan Cooper.

"That's exactly how it is now; that's the negative for me," joked Tom Cooper.

Tom, trainer of Cheltenham winners Total Enjoyment and Forpadydeplasterer, has still managed to have one up on his son.

When Bryan first started out riding he regularly came to his father seeking his counsel. He would then go back to his fellow jockeys and friends and pass on nuggets of information, 'Dad says this… or Dad says that'. As a result he earned the nickname 'Dad Says'.

The strides that Bryan has made in his career thus far is something that brings immense pride to his father, and his second place finish on Gordan Elliot-trained Clarcam amongst horse racing legends in Leopardstown in late January was a moment that is fresh on Tom's memory.

"To watch three top horses and jockeys running in a Grade 1 race in Leopardstown; Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh and himself, I know he finished second to Un De Sceaux but to be there to watch the three of them in motion was just phenomenal," said Tom.

"It's a thing to be honoured about when your son has achieved what he has achieved so far in his short career," said Tom.

Bryan is in good form at the right time with notable wins on Petite Parisienne, Roi Des Francs, Dedigout, Very Wood and Roi Du Mee in February. In the last of his racing action before Cheltenham, Bryan had two wins on Azorian and No Secrets in Navan on Sunday.

With Cheltenham only around the corner next week, the signs good for the Gigginstown Stud retained jockey.

"Cheltenham is a different buzz to anything else and you are massively looking forward to it. It's a massive festival to us; it is the Olympics for us in one sense. You are hoping you have a good week and if you ride a winner then it is an even bigger bonus," said the jockey.

Of his notable rides for the festival, he is expected to ride Don Poli in the National Hunt Chase, Lieutenant Colonel in the World Hurlde, Don Cossack in the Champion Chase and Road to Riches in the Gold Cup.

Cooper will be looking to outdo fellow Kerry man Jim Culloty, trainer of Lord Windermere, in the penultimate race of the festival on Friday, the Gold Cup.

Will Cooper have better memories of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival?