Saturday 18 November 2017

A toughness of spirit we'll never comprehend

Cooper's horrific leg-break all part of game for men who routinely stare mortality in the face

Robbie McNamara waves his whip in delight as he and Silver Concorde lead the field home in yesterday's bumper at Cheltenham
Robbie McNamara waves his whip in delight as he and Silver Concorde lead the field home in yesterday's bumper at Cheltenham
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Bryan Cooper's cries arced in sharp, staccato bursts over the medic's shoulder and out through the open ambulance door.

It was a sound loud enough to carry through the back windows of the weigh-room. His right leg lay broken in two places, arrangements now being made to remove him to Cheltenham General. Tom, his father, arrived, climbing aboard with a face parched of colour.

Gordon Elliott, upon whose horse – Clarcam – Cooper had fallen, stood waiting by the ambulance door. He was joined by Mouse Morris and, eventually, Dessie Hughes – Bryan's first real mentor. In time, Tom would clamber back out, speaking in whispered tones to this tight assembly of old comrades. A medic called out that Bryan was looking for his phone.

"Tell him I have it," said Tom, anxiety tugging at his mouth.

On the opposite side of the ambulance, horses for the bumper were being led to the parade ring, stable staff completely unaware of the turmoil unfolding inside. All runners and riders would be down at the start by the time a path was cleared for the ambulance to reverse through exit gates and sweep away with flashing blue lights.

In the front seat, mobile phone to his ear, sat Tom Cooper.


It had been around 4.45 on a gorgeous, sun-kindled Gloucestershire evening when Clarcam went crashing to the turf.

At roughly the same time, to warm applause, Tony McCoy was picking himself somewhat tentatively to his feet in front of the grandstand after a blood-curdling fall on Goodwood Mirage.

The Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle had developed into a rough, helter-skelter charge through the Cotswold dusk.

But it was Cooper's mishap that offered the most chilling parable for how capricious an existence the jump-racing life can be and how its protagonists are never more than one wrong footfall from calamity.

A year ago, he seemed to walk though this place with a rabbit's foot in his pocket.

Three winners catapulted him into the rarified atmosphere occupied by the Walshes, Geraghtys, McCoys and Russells and, when Our Conor came smoking up the track in the Triumph Hurdle, his alliance with with the Kerry kid looked like something cast in stone.

Cooper had inherited some of Davy Russell's Festival rides when the Cork man was stood down with what medics called a "spontaneously punctured lung" and also took his seat some weeks later to win the Aintree Bowl on First Lieutenant.

When Andrew Lynch got hurt at the same meeting, it was Cooper who inherited a winning Grade One ride on Henry de Bromhead's rank outsider, Special Tiara. For a time, everything Bryan Cooper touched seemed to turn to gold.

Then, at the turn of the year, he replaced Russell as first rider to Gigginstown House stud, the weigh-room equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.

But nothing comes gift-wrapped in this world and he'd already lost the ride on Our Conor, given new owner Barry Connell's preference for Danny Mullins.

So while Cooper still, routinely, rode out the horse on Hughes' Curragh gallops, that Triumph Hurdle would be his last time aboard in competition.

When Our Conor perished in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle, we can but imagine Cooper's inner conflict.

The Gigginstown seat brings pressure but, for a 21-year-old who has always been willing to subordinate himself to his craft, it represented the fulfilment of a dream. Cooper has often spoken of the impact his father's victory with Total Enjoyment at the Festival in 2004 had on him as a 10-year-old.

Bryan led that horse into the winner's enclosure and reflected last year: "To ride a winner at the Festival was all I dreamed about after that."

So the Coopers have long been drawn to the rolling delirium of this place, a natural condition given Tom's follow-up success with Forpadydeplasterer.

But a jump jockey's life finds different context every day. Falls challenge, alter, sometimes even end careers. Yesterday, that bumper race would be won by Robbie McNamara on board Silver Concorde. Robbie is first cousin of John Thomas McNamara, left paralysed from the neck down by a fall last year at this same meeting.

Those of us who dip in and out of the sport find ourselves squinting with incredulity at the calm acceptance of its cruelties.

Yesterday, RTE's 'Liveline' was apparently energised by calls from people offended by Ruby Walsh's comments about Our Conor's death.

And so, on a day that claimed two more fatalities, Ruby revisited the subject.

"We look after horses like they're pets," he explained. "There's a huge difference between your pet and your family. That's the point I was making.

"There's a big difference between you going home tonight and something's happened to your dog and you go home tonight and something's happened to one of your kids. There's a huge difference.

"We look after horses like they're pets and that's the feeling you get when something goes wrong. At the end of the day, it's still your pet. It ain't your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister."

Danger is everywhere in this sport, acceptance of it an obligation of competing. The animal rights argument will never be reconciled with that reality, yet there is little doubt that thoroughbred horses live more cosseted, privileged lives than just about any other animals on this planet.

The jockeys? They exist in an environment of endless flux. Cooper broke his other leg in a fall at Down Royal last May and, heaven knows, Walsh has suffered crushed vertebrae, broken ankles, hips, legs, teeth, a ruptured spleen and numerous concussions.

They are lovers of their sport, not just devotees of the big day. Two years ago, TG4 broadcast a wonderful documentary called 'Jump Boys'. It followed at close quarters the stories of Walsh, Russell and Barry Geraghty.

All three spoke candidly about an existence that challenges man and woman on every conceivable level. They'd known colleagues that died on the racetrack but found protection now in a kind of self-mocking flippancy.

Asked what made a good National Hunt jockey, Russell chuckled: "To be thick as a plank is a very good starting point."

Talking to them, of course, you find the reality to be very different. You cannot do the job they do without recognising your own mortality on a profound level. Their lives, thus, represent an endless drama about crossroads, turning points and fate.

Yesterday, listening to Bryan Cooper's anguished cries from the ambulance, you couldn't but feel that they represent a toughness of spirit most of us will never quite comprehend.

For his greatest pain today will, undoubtedly, be knowing that someone else now has his string of rides.

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