Tuesday 11 December 2018

Coopers' extra special 'Duke' ready to strike Gold

Robbie Power celebrates as he enters the parade ring on Our Duke after winning last year’s Irish Grand National. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Power celebrates as he enters the parade ring on Our Duke after winning last year’s Irish Grand National. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Not since the days of 'The People's Horse' Danoli has a roar been heard like the one which greeted Our Duke as he bound clear to claim last year's Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse and make a family fairytale came true.

Owned by the Cooper Family Syndicate, 'The Duke' was bucking a trend and striking a blow for all owners with limited resources who dare to dream as friends and relatives flew in to the races from America and England to offer their support.

Others watched on phones and televisions from Australia and Israel but just an hour before the race it was "touch and go" whether Robbie Power's mount would take his place with the ground not considered ideal for the son of Oscar.

Having thought that Our Duke may be pulled up early in the race if the conditions didn't suit, racing enthusiast Billy Cooper - who bred the horse and retains a share - watched in amazement as Jessica Harrington's chaser tackled each fence with verve.

As the race went on he just got better before surging clear at the last, something which still gives Cooper "shivers" when he thinks about it as his voice quivers with pride when noting the achievements of a "special horse".

"I have it taped at home and when he takes it up at the third last at the bend and the crowd started roaring, when he jumps the last the noise is unreal. Everybody had him backed, they had him backed for months. It was just magic," Cooper says.

"There's one person I have to admire in racing and that's JP McManus. After the 'Duke' won the National, JP was up beside the horse and nearly every photograph I have at home on my wall, my grandson is six years of age and he's standing beside JP.

"There's JP clapping away and the young fella standing there looking up at him. And I just said in 200 years' time, someone is going to say, 'That young fella there was my grandfather'. That photograph will still be on the wall and people will say, 'Those boys won the Irish Grand National'."

When Cooper took him to Moone, Co Kildare for the first time he noted to Harrington that "it doesn't matter what Mullins throws at you, this fella will take them on" and he wasn't far wrong when he skated home in his Bumper by 21 lengths at Punchestown in November 2015.

An offer of €400,000 was subsequently put on the table but it was declined. For the Coopers, this was the horse of a lifetime and no money could replicate the enjoyment which he has brought, and probably never will.

"My brother is 68 and I'm 65, the chances of getting another one... I spent 30 years trying to get a horse like that so I know it's money but money's not everything. I don't think any money would buy him now," the Rathangan-based pensioner says.

'The Duke' has come a long way since that maiden success, taking in a Grade One success at Leopardstown along the way and the eight-year-old will return to Foxrock on Sunday as he bids to take home the Unibet Irish Gold Cup at the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival.

There have been some roadblocks, however, and he disappointed at Down Royal before scans later revealed a kissing spine, for which he has had an operation and has returned with his usual zest. For Cooper, it put his remarkable success into "perspective".

A return to form for Our Duke would likely yield a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March but Cooper is trying not to think about the weekend until it rolls around. Although his friends rarely allow that to happen.

Poker

"I'm trying not to think about it yet, I'm trying to wipe it out of my head until the day; on the day then I'll get excited but all of my friends are more excited about it now than I am," he chuckles.

"I can't go anywhere now. We play poker every Monday night and the first thing you're asked is, 'well, what's the story? Is he going to win?'"

As for his expectations, if the real Our Duke turns up, he can't see him headed.

"If the horse is right and I think he's never looked as well, he's 100pc. I've never seen look as well and I've never seen him doing a piece of work as well. If he arrives in Leopardstown the same as he was in Fairyhouse, I don't think there's anything to beat him."

If that happens, they could blow the roof off Leopardstown. Hold onto your hats.

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