Class Cooper comes of in style of a champion
Bryan Cooper may have been disappointed to be overlooked for the ride on Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs, but he still managed to depart the Cheltenham Festival as the riding find of the week.
The 20-year-old native of Farmer's Bridge in Tralee bagged his first Cheltenham Festival winner courtesy of a determined drive on Benefficient on Thursday. Yesterday, he was all style and poise as he truly came of age with an opening-race double, the first half of a sensational four-timer for Irish-trained runners.
Moreover, Cooper can now dream about coming back here on a leading contender for a championship race in 2013, because Our Conor thrust himself into the Champion Hurdle picture with an utterly devastating 15-length demolition of the JCB Triumph Hurdle field. The big white face of Dessie Hughes' bay gelding had long promised to bring the raiders' 11-year drought in the juvenile Grade One to an end.
Few, though, expected this from the 4/1 shot. He travelled sumptuously and led at his leisure two-out, before cantering home from the Ruby Walsh-ridden Far West. Cooper will be hoping it's not the last time Walsh gets only a distant view of Our Conor's rear-end, as Hurricane Fly is the target for which they now aim.
"He has to be a Champion Hurdle horse," said Hughes, who saddled Hardy Eustace to two famous Champion Hurdle victories.
"I thought and hoped he'd win, but I couldn't have imagined he'd do it like that. He's really special. He quickened so well and the further he went the better he went – he's a real one, isn't he?"
This was a welcome change of fortune for the Curragh handler, who watched Tofino Bay and Lyreen Legend jump the last fence in front earlier in the week, only to get chinned. He revealed that Our Conor, now unbeaten in four hurdle races for the Man About Town Syndicate, had schooled over flights when he was just two years old.
Tom Cooper reckons his son began honing his technique on the back of the couch around the same age. His career trajectory has already been meteoric and it will take on stratospheric proportions if Our Conor fulfils his Champion Hurdle potential.
Bookmakers make him as low as 5/1 second favourite to steal Hurricane Fly's crown. By the time Cooper got the leg up on Ted Veale from Tony Martin in the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle, he was oozing confidence.
He toyed with the pace-setting Tennis Cap on the run to the last. When he finally said go, his mount picked up decisively to complete his 54/1 brace by a length and a half. "I came here with a few rides, but to ride three winners is unbelievable," he beamed afterwards. "I have to pinch myself, it's hard to believe."
Returned at 10/1, the John Breslin-owned six-year-old finished third when favourite for the Boylesports.com Hurdle at Leopardstown in January. "Things went against him in Leopardstown," said Martin, who also trains Benefficient.
"It's wonderful when it works out. We have Croke Park in September and the All-Ireland final with 80,000 people – that's what it's like coming here."
Martin added of the prodigy that steered both his winners home: "It's great to have him on your side. I have been fortunate to have (Ruby) Walsh and (Paul) Carberry riding for me for a long time, but this lad is certainly a good deputy to have."
After Barry Geraghty plundered his second Gold Cup on Bobs Worth, Colman Sweeney enjoyed a generous slice of luck on his father Rodger's Salsify to become the first rider to win the amateurs' equivalent three times. Just as he had done in such thrilling fashion 12 months ago, the Castlelyons native dropped the 2/1 favourite right out the back in the Foxhunters' Chase.
However, his Conna neighbour Jane Mangan, another precocious riding talent, still held a commanding two-length lead on her father Jimmy's Oscar Delta as they crossed the final fence. Only for Oscar Delta jinking badly and unseating Mangan halfway up the run in, Salsify would surely have finished second.
Naturally, Sweeney empathised with his teenage colleague, whose father and mother Mary struggled to console her. "God was on my side," he conceded during celebrations that were somewhat muted compared to 2012. "I feel sorry for Jane, but I did feel I was going to rally. Whether or not I would have got there, I don't know."
He went on to dedicate the success to JT McNamara, a man on everyone's mind yesterday. "He is one of my best friends," he said in an emotional tribute.
Alderwood also emulated his County Hurdle triumph of this day 12 months ago, cruising up the hill to defy fellow JP McManus-owned rival Kid Cassidy in the Grand Annual Handicap Chase. Tom Mullins' charge was completing a double on the day for McCoy and his chief employer after At Fishers Cross' earlier win.
Both were well-backed favourites, At Fishers Cross returning at 11/8 and Alderwood at 3/1. A record 14th winner for the raiding party, the popular result of the finale completed a fine day's work for punters, after the bookmakers' beano 24 hours earlier.