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Bryan Cooper

Bryan Cooper went to Fairyhouse two weeks ago with a good book of rides.  Big weekend, shop window, four rides, all with chances, and he came home with three winners.

“I knew that I was going there with good rides,” says the rider now, reflecting on his latest treble.  “I schooled Lieutenant Colonel the previous Wednesday, and he had schooled nicely, so I fancied him to run well.  I always thought that there was a good prize in Dunvegan, and Grangee was very straightforward.  She was an odds-on shot, and it was nice to get the call up from Willie (Mullins) to ride her.”

That’s the key: getting on the horses.  Ask any of the top riders, the most difficult part is getting on the right horses. 

For Bryan Cooper, there used to be a constant stream of right horses.  As first rider for Gigginstown House Stud, the right horses were on tap.  Don Poli and Don Cossack and Road To Riches and Apple’s Jade.  You were sitting on top-class horses every day, competing every week in the big races.  Grade 1 winners, Cheltenham Festival winners, they were part of the deal.

When you are riding for Gigginstown House, you are all-in.  You ride the wave because it’s fast and it’s strong.  You can only ride that one wave though, it’s all-consuming, so when the wave stops rolling, you are left in the still.  You have to start building momentum again. 

Momentum stalled after the loss of the Gigginstown gig in the summer of 2017, the high-profile rides, the top-class horses.  To put it into context, in the 40 months that ran between January 2014 and April 2017, Bryan Cooper rode 26 Grade 1 winners, including winning a Cheltenham Gold Cup on Don Cossack.  In the 33 months that ran between May 2017 and January 2020, he rode none.

A brief stint riding the horses owned by the late Alan Potts in Britain ended after the owner’s death in November 2017, and the stats painted a bleak picture.  Bryan Cooper’s tally had shrivelled from a hundred winners during the 2015/16 season, 94 in Ireland and six in Britain, to 18 winners in 2018/19, and it reached a nadir of 11 in 2019/20.

“There were a few people who stood by me then,” says the rider.  “Paul Nolan called me the day after I lost the Gigginstown job, and told me to come in and ride out for him.  I can’t thank Paul and his brother James enough for what they did for me.  Who knows where I would be now but for them?”

He took some time off after the 2019 Galway Festival.  He went to Australia for a few weeks and reflected. 

“There was a point at which I really was thinking about giving it up.  Then, after I got back from Australia, my dad convinced me to ride Lucky Phil in for him in a handicap hurdle at Gowran Park, and she won.  Then Latest Exhibition came along.”

Bryan Cooper rode Paul Nolan’s horse for the first time on this weekend two years ago, when together they won the Grade 2 Navan Novice Hurdle.  Then they won the Grade 1 Nathaniel Lacy and Partners Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival in February, a first Grade 1 win for the rider in over two and a half years.

Two weeks ago at Fairyhouse, a day after his Saturday treble, Bryan Cooper rode Latest Exhibition in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, on his seasonal debut, full of the optimism that goes with a top-class horse on his return in November.  At the third last flight, Latest Exhibition suffered a fatal injury.

“It’s desperate,” says the rider.  “It’s desperate for the horse, a top-class horse, and I was sick for the owners, and for Paul and James.  To lose a horse like that.  And I owe Latest Exhibition so much.  He has been a massive part of my career.”

Cooper re-grouped during the Covid-19 break in racing last year.  He moved home for a little while and worked with his dad.  He came back that summer, put his head down and worked hard.  He rode Tornado Flyer for Willie Mullins to finish second to Min in the John Durkan Chase 12 months ago.

“David Casey said to me then that it might be no harm if I went into Willie’s one or two days a week, so I did.  The rest is history.  Willie put me up on Franco De Port in the Grade 1 Racing Post Chase at Leopardstown last Christmas, and we won.  I’m always delighted to ride for Willie whenever he wants me.”

He rode for the champion trainer last Sunday too, he rode Asterion Forlonge in the Grade 1 John Durkan Chase at Punchestown, and he was travelling like the most likely winner when he came down at the third last fence.  It’s racing, it was one of those things, but the fact that he was on the second lowest priced horse of the Willie Mullins septet in the feature race of the weekend didn’t go unnoticed. 

He is getting around the yards, riding out for different trainers, Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Noel Meade, Paul Nolan, Pat Fahy, John Ryan.  He’s riding well, he’s riding winners, and people are noticing.  He’s in demand.  His innate talent has never been in dispute.

Bryan Cooper has ridden 32 winners in Ireland this season so far, almost as many as the total of the last two entire seasons combined, which sees him sit in fifth position in the jockeys’ championship. 

“I’m in a great frame of mind,” he says, “and I’m as fit as I have ever been.  I do a lot of gym work, I’ve been working with a friend of mine, a personal trainer, and that has been really good.  I feel strong.  I ride now at a minimum of around 10st 5lb, not at 10st, but I feel better for that.  I eat the same amount, I’ve always had three meals, but people say I’ve filled out, I feel good.”

Momentum up.  Riding the waves again.

 © The Sunday Times, 12th December 2021