Things We Learned » Cooper flying high

Cooper flying high

Bryan Cooper is riding out of his skin. His strike rate of 23% is third behind only Patrick Mullins and Ruby Walsh in the jockeys’ championship among riders who have had more than six rides this season. Such is the potency of high-class Gigginstown horses these days, Cooper has had to make a few tough calls in big races of late, and it is understandable that he doesn’t get them all right, but he got the Very Wood/Thunder And Roses call right in the Grade 2 Ten Up Chase at Navan on Sunday, even though the market didn’t.

It is great to see Very Wood back. Last year’s Albert Bartlett Hurdle winner looked very good in winning the beginners’ chase at Galway in October that has been won in the past by Jessies Dream and China Rock and Don Cossack and Lyreen Legend and Last Instalment, but he didn’t kick on from there. Until Sunday, that is. The Noel Meade-trained gelding is bang on track for Cheltenham now.

It may be that Cooper will not get to ride Very Wood at Cheltenham, it may be that the National Hunt Chase, which is restricted to amateur riders, will be the Martaline gelding’s target. Even so, the youngster should have a fantastic book of rides.

It may be that he will not have to change his silks or even his cap all week, but that will not be a problem given the quality of the Gigginstown contenders. Who knows how the ball is going to hop, but, all things being equal, his book of rides could read something like this: Road To Riches (Gold Cup), Don Cossack (Ryanair Chase), Valseur Lido (JLT or RSA), Don Poli (RSA), Petite Parisienne (Triumph Hurdle), Clarcam (Arkle), Lieutenant Colonel (World Hurdle), No More Heroes (Albert Bartlett), Outlander (Neptune Hurdle). All those horses are currently priced up at 12/1 or lower in their respective races.

As well as that, he could ride Tell Us More in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he should have a decent ride in the Bumper, perhaps in Valerian Bridge or Stone Hard, and he could have good rides in some of the handicaps, like Edeymi in the Pertemps or Savello in the County Hurdle or the Grand Annual. Of course, there is no surpassing the quality of rides that Ruby Walsh has for the Festival, but Cooper could still be in for some week.

Walsh a master

Speaking of Ruby Walsh, it is true that he is often on the best horse in the race, but there is a reason for that, and his class was once again in evidence in the ride that he gave Thistlecrack to win the two-mile novices’ hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.

Close up behind the leader Otago Trail through the early stages of the race, Walsh moved Colin Tizzard’s gelding to the outside running down by Swinley Bottom, and gradually allowed him drift back through the small field as the pace increased.

Thistlecrack was last of the five runners as they started the climb up the side of the track about six furlongs from home, but his rider did not seem to be too worried. It wasn’t until they jumped the last flight on that part of the course, the third last all told, that Ruby started to ask his horse to improve. He moved into fourth place as they rounded the home turn, travelled well into the home straight and, still just fourth jumping the last, he stayed on best of all on the near side to get up and win by four lengths.

It may be that he was on the best horse in the race anyway, but it takes nerve and confidence to ride his horse as he did. Walsh has all of that, and lots more besides. He is a massive asset.

Hurricane Fly could win

Having started the season with a ‘no way can he do it’ attitude, the realisation that Hurricane Fly could win the Champion Hurdle again is slowly beginning to dawn.

The two main arguments against his chance – besides his two stable companions and last year’s 1-3 – are his age and the notion that he is not as good at Cheltenham as he is at Leopardstown or Punchestown.

Take them in reverse order. On the hypothesis regarding the track, it is interesting that it is not one to which Willie Mullins subscribes. Hurricane Fly has run in four Champion Hurdles, and he has won two. On the two occasions on which he was beaten, his trainer thinks that he had an excuse. This year, he thinks that the horse is in far better form than he was at this time last year. That he is training better, doing everything more easily.

Then there is his age. He is 11, and 11-year-olds do not win the Champion Hurdle. It is 34 years since one did. Sea Pigeon was the last one to do it, and he was an extraordinary hurdler.

But Hurricane Fly is an extraordinary hurdler too, possibly even more extraordinary than Sea Pigeon. Sea Pigeon had won a Champion Hurdle before 1981, but Hurricane Fly has won two. Hurricane Fly has high-class rivals this year, Jezki, Faugheen, The New One, Arctic Fire. But Sea Pigeon took on top class opponents in 1981 too – Pollardstown, Bird’s Nest, Daring Run, Badsworth Boy – and he beat them all fairly comprehensively.

It could happen, you know. They may need two new grandstands at Cheltenham if it does.

Thyestes form strong

Final word on Djakadam, honestly. So the Thyestes Chase that he won was only a handicap, but it is always a tough handicap, it was a massive performance for a six-year-old to win it under top weight, and the race was won by last year’s Gold Cup runner-up, who won the Thyestes off a 3lb lower mark. The performance proved that Djakadam was in top form, and that he could stay three miles on soft ground at least.

As a bonus, last weekend was a good weekend for the race. Thyestes sixth Toon River won a two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase back at Gowran Park on Saturday, while The Job Is Right, who unseated at the last in the Thyestes when looking likely to finish second, ran really well in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle at Navan on Sunday.

Racing privileged to have such access to top sportspeople

Say you are a football writer. Say you are invited to a press day at Jose Mourinho’s house. Say he allows around 30 members of the British and Irish media into his house, feeds them, and spends about an hour and a half answering their questions in his sitting room and explaining his thoughts in-depth. Say he then spends another hour doing radio and television interviews with individual broadcasters.

Or say you call Louis van Gaal and ask him if you can come down to see him with a camera three weeks before, oh I don’t know, let’s say the Champions’ League Final. Say he says yes, no problem, what day suits you? Say he lets you in to see the team train, talks through each individual player’s strengths and weakness, outlines what he thinks each player’s best position is, spends the morning with you.

At what point do you think you would wake up?

© The Irish Field, 21st February 2015