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Bryan Cooper

Cheltenham, St Patrick’s Day 2004, 11-year-old Bryan Cooper watches with his dad from the stands as their mare, Total Enjoyment, wins the Champion Bumper.

Before he knows it, he is off, down through the crowded stands, through the clapping and cheering, down onto the racecourse to see their horse, his horse. He is thrust centre-stage, and he leads the mare up the chute, through the cheering crowds, up through the paddock and on into the winner’s enclosure to a cacophony of sound. Magic.

Imagine riding a Cheltenham winner.

Roll the clock forward. Cheltenham, St Patrick’s Day 2010, Cooper’s debut at Cheltenham as a rider, he finishes fourth in the Fred Winter Hurdle on his dad’s horse Son Amix, just a neck in front of the fifth horse.

That neck is important. The first four horses home in a Cheltenham race come back to the winner’s enclosure to unsaddle. Those who finish from fifth to last are also-rans. The young rider is led back into that hallowed half-moon of trodden turf that is the dream destination of everyone who has an ounce of interest in National Hunt racing.

The belly-cheers are for Ruby Walsh and the winner Sanctuaire, but the young rider doesn’t mind. He is there, unsaddling his dad’s horse beside Ruby at Cheltenham. He acknowledges the polite applause and dares to dream.

Imagine riding a Cheltenham winner.

This time last week, it was all about Our Conor.

“I was just hoping that everything would be okay with him,” says Cooper. “There were so many people talking about him, so many people fancying him, so many people backing him. He was the one I was thinking about at the start of the week all right.”

Cooper rode at Naas last Sunday (five rides, no winners), then flew to Cheltenham. He rented a house with a few of his weigh room colleagues, Davy Condon, Robbie Power, Robbie McNamara, close to the racecourse, nice and handy, and he was at the track at seven o’clock on Monday morning to have a sit on his Triumph Hurdle horse.

“I couldn’t believe how well Our Conor was on Monday morning,” he says. “How well he had travelled over, how well the boss (Dessie Hughes) had him. I was very hopeful.”

One ride on Tuesday, White Star Line, third in the JLT Chase. Two rides on Wednesday, both for the boss: Posiden Sea, ninth in the Bumper, and Lyreen Legend, an agonising second in the RSA Chase.

“I love Lyreen Legend,” says Cooper. “He is just one of my favourite horses, and I was a bit disappointed when we got beaten. I thought I had a chance of getting to Paul (Townend) and Boston Bob on the run to the last, and when he fell I thought we could go on and win, but then Davy came up on my outside on Lord Windermere. My fellow kept on gamely up the hill, but he had no answer to the winner.”

Half way through the meeting, and still no winner. But he knew that the boss’ horses were in great form, and Our Conor wasn’t until Friday anyway. Third on Tuesday, second on Wednesday – complete the sequence.

Benefficient could have run in the Arkle Trophy on Tuesday, but trainer Tony Martin had decided to wait for the Jewson Chase on Thursday. The horse owed Cooper nothing even before he set off in front on him in Thursday’s curtain-raiser. The first time he sat on him, in the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February 2012, the first time that he rode for Tony Martin, the son of Beneficial carried Cooper to his first Grade 1 victory. A 50/1 shocker.

On Thursday, Benefficient didn’t miss a beat. More relaxed in his first-time hood than he usually is (trainer astuteness), he didn’t rush his fences like he often does, but he came up for Cooper every time he asked him.

The young rider didn’t panic when Tom Scudamore and Barry Geraghty came up on his outside on the run down the hill. Calmness beyond his youthfulness. He was happy that his horse was going as fast as he could go, but he was also confident that he had plenty of energy left. Quietly quietly, he allowed them past, then galvanised his horse for his effort up the home straight, over the last two fences, charting the brave man’s route up the inside.

“To be honest, I thought I would finish third when they passed me, but I knew that my fellow had a good bit left and that he would keep running to the line. There was a gap on the inside, so there was no point in wasting ground going around them. I asked him for a long one at the last, and thank God he came up, because if he hadn’t, I’m sure the pair of us would have ended up on the floor. And he just kept on running up the hill. It was an amazing feeling.”

If you thought that his win on Benefficient, first Cheltenham winner, would have eased the pressure that he felt before going out to ride Our Conor in the Triumph Hurdle on Friday, you would be wrong. Quite the contrary actually.

“I thought that I couldn’t have another winner. I thought that Benefficient was my winner, that it was too much to expect to ride two.”

He was always happy on Our Conor, he was always travelling well just behind the early leader Diakali. He may have hit the front sooner than ideal, but he thought that Diakali would carry him further and, when you are travelling as well as Our Conor was travelling, at some point you have to let the handbrake off. When he did, Dessie Hughes’ horse careered clear.

A look under his left arm, a look under his right arm, just green grass behind him and one flight of hurdles in front of him. One, two, pop. If he had taken the wrong course there wouldn’t have been as much distance between him and his pursuers.

If the young rider was in dreamland then, he was in fantasyland when he cruised up behind Tennis Cap on the Tony Martin-trained Ted Veale in the very next race, the County Hurdle.

“Tony told me not to hit the front too soon, so I just kept him in behind the leader until the approach to the last. I couldn’t believe it, another winner. Davy Condon pulled up beside me to congratulate me, and I asked him if I was dreaming.”

Imagine riding three winners at Cheltenham.

© The Sunday Times, 17th March 2013