Past precedent suggests Cooper can bounce back at Cheltenham

Cheltenham Racing Festival

Stephen Fernane

Cheltenham's a place where adversity and jubilation seem to go hand in hand for jockey Bryan Cooper - a horrific leg injury in 2014 that almost finished his career, offset by memories of a never to be forgotten day in 2016 when Bryan and Don Cossack entered the Cheltenham Hall of Fame.

 Add in the likes of Apple's Jade, Our Connor, Ted Veale and Don Poli and you soon discover Bryan's 8 festival wins form part of an impressive CV.

There's no denying though that Bryan finds himself heading to the Cotswolds next week facing sporting adversity. His career, compared with just a few short years ago, has levelled off considerably with the much publicised Gigginstown demotion in July 2017 an obvious starting point.

This disappointment was cancelled out last autumn when Bryan was appointed first choice rider for the late Alan Potts in the UK, an arrangement now under threat after trainer Colin Tizzard announced at a recent press day that Robbie Power is first choice jockey for the Potts' horses at Cheltenham. In short: the initial agreement that Bryan would ride the Potts' horses in England, and Robbie would ride his string in Ireland, appears to be at an end.

The 25-year-old Tralee man hasn't ridden for the Dorset-based trainer since pulling up on Finian's Oscar in Cheltenham's Cleeve Hurdle back in January. Up to that point he bagged 5 winners for Tizzard in the UK, while in Ireland he has soldiered his way to 14 wins so far from 163 rides: 5 for Henry de Bromhead, two apiece for Gordon Elliott, Tom Cooper and Noel Meade, and one apiece for Dermot Weld, Willie Mullins and Mouse Morris.

Yes, it's an obvious dip compared to the highs of 2016 when he amassed over 94 winners, but does Bryan really deserve to be out of favour to the extent he is? Is it fair that a multiple Grade 1 winner should have his credentials questioned the way they have by some celebrity punters more concerned with boosting their own reputations on social media? I'm not sure it is as Bryan has done little wrong when given the opportunity this season.

I was at Cheltenham in November when Bryan won on Finian's Oscar and the way he got to work after jumping the last to see off Barry Geraghty's charge (Move with the Times) was as good a piece of horsemanship as you're likely to find. He also won in style that weekend on Fox Norton.

In truth, Fox Norton's poor performances since then have little to do with Bryan. Bryan was at home injured last November when Colin Tizzard made what I consider a poor decision to run Fox Norton in the Tingle Creek - a race he was noticeably outpaced in early on in what proved a sharper test. The King George Chase at Christmas, in all likelihood, should have been his main target, but this race came too soon after the Sandown performance and Fox Norton blew up in Bryan's hands after just a circuit of Kempton. The horse has struggled to find form since and misses the festival through injury.

Among Tizzard's main hopes in the Potts' colours next week will be Ainchea (Supreme Novices Hurdle), Sizing Tennessee (RSA Chase), Vision Des Flos (Ballymore Novices' Hurdle), and Finian's Oscar (JLT Chase), while Fox Norton's omission narrows the opportunities even further for Cooper.

But some of the commentary surrounding Cooper's current predicament sounds as ludicrous as it does premature. Bryan has proven himself more than capable in his career to date and has come back from injuries that most of us couldn't even comprehend. Last year when asked about Bryan's personal resolve, his father Tom said the mental strength shown by Bryan during his injuries was 'incredible' for a young man of his age. That sort of experience certainly doesn't make you shy away from the more trivial challenges life throws at you.

It's been proven that jump racing is a sport where silence is a virtue, particularly during low points. In a sport that produces more lows than highs for the people involved, opportunity can often come from a most unlikely quarter and from a least expected source - something Bryan needs to keep in mind as Cheltenham beckons. Davy Russell's handling of his sacking by Gigginstown in 2014 is a case in point. Against all odds Russell went on to win that year's Cheltenham Gold Cup on Lord Windermere for trainer Jim Culloty.

Davy never uttered a single word of negativity in public and yet here he is 4-years later back sharing the number one slot at Gigginstown again. Only Russell could do it. But only Michael O'Leary could get away with it.

I also wonder if Bryan's critics know that from his 14 wins so far in Ireland this season, 7 of them have been for Gigginstown. The fact 50 percent of his wins on home soil have come courtesy of an owner that demoted him says far more about Bryan's maturity and professionalism than anything we may think about him.

But jump racing shares nothing, for example, of professional soccer's tolerance for petulance where stars regularly stamp their feet in defiance when things don't go their way. Jump racing is far too measured in its distribution of success for this to be allowed and Bryan and his weigh-room colleagues know it well. Hard work is still the most reliable option in times of slump.

Ironically, Bryan's last festival winner was 'Road to Respect' in a handicap chase in 2017 and if there's one man who knows all about travelling the hard road, it's Bryan. Don't be surprised if he tears up the Cheltenham script next week, a script many felt necessary to write on his behalf. Precedent suggests Cooper can and will bounce back as he has the ability. After all, it's been done before.

Cooper's likely rides

Calino D'airy (Tuesday) Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase, 25/1

Simply The Betts (Tuesday)Supreme Novices' Hurdle, 25/1

Beyond the Law (Wednesday) Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, 25/1

High School Days (Thursday) Mares' Novice Hurdle, 20/1

Morgan (Friday) County Hurdle, 25/1

Delta Work (has multiple entries but best chance could be in the Pertemps or Martin Pipe, 14/1 and 16/1 respectively)