Rising star Bryan Cooper is on his way to Punchestown and the very top of his sport
Kerry jockey heads to the festival on the back of stellar displays at Cheltenham and Aintree
Used to be, a young jockey’s first hint that the big time was making eyes at him came over the airwaves. Small notes made deafening sounds. As a teenager on his first trips over to race in England, Ruby Walsh used to get his mother to tape the TV coverage in the hope of hearing John Francome say his name when he watched it back. Even just a mention, even just in passing. The briefest buzz and flicker of neon.
Bryan Cooper is no more in thrall to fame than any of his breed. But for all that he’s a jockey first, he’s still a 20-year-old a short-head second. So when you talk about what’s changed in his life in the five weeks since Cheltenham, it is with just the slightest hint of giddiness that he reports the swell in his number of Twitter followers. Old money, new money.
“It’s gone up massively,” he laughs. “Every day there’s more and more. I’ve about 8,000 now. It started at Cheltenham and hasn’t really stopped since. I’m not even really on Twitter all that long but I think it doubled after Cheltenham. I suppose being on The Morning Line would have pushed it up a bit.”
And with that, the hearts of TV executives everywhere sink to their boots. As taglines go, ‘The Morning Line – It’ll Boost Your Twitter Following’ probably needs a little work. Cooper appeared on Channel 4’s racing programme the morning of the Gold Cup, a day after his first Cheltenham Festival winner aboard Benefficient in the Jewson. As with most of what he says and does, his account of how it came about will likely just remind you that you’re old.
“After I rode my winner, Mick Fitzgerald asked me would I do it. I always thought it would be cool to be on The Morning Line but to be on it on Gold Cup day was something you couldn’t imagine happening. So when Mick asked me, I was delighted. It was pretty cool.
“I was really trying at the time to make sure I took it all in. Obviously everything was happening fast but you do try to say to yourself that you have to take it all in. Don’t just let it wash over you because it mightn’t come around too often.”
More and more, his actions make mockery of his words. Predictions are weightless guff in most sports and never more than in racing. But if he’s right and it does indeed turn out that such weeks are the exception rather than the rule, then a lot of egg will have washed up on a lot of faces. The days of people tipping him as the next big thing are over. Cheltenham broke his cover and let the wider world in on the secret.
Three winners was the headline but down in the agate type were another three placed runners to back them up. After Benefficient, Our Conor and Ted Veale came First Lieutenant and Lyreen Legend and White Star Line. All in the money, all benefiting from the patient, unflustered pilot on their back.
Though he’d never ridden a winner at the festival before, that didn’t mean he hadn’t known victory. Roll the years back to 2004 and the last race on St Patrick’s Day threw up an Irish winner in the Champion Bumper, a mare called Total Enjoyment. Owned by a raucous Kerry syndicate, ridden by a gleeful Kerry jockey in Jim Culloty, trained by a quiet Kerry half-dentist, half-trainer in Tom Cooper.
And scuttling alongside as the whole merry band of them came down the chute and around into the parade ring, his 11-year-old son Bryan. Standing four-foot-nothing – most of it bomber jacket – and barely able to reach up and grab the bridle. Yet even as he led the mare in with the lairy swirl of a well-juiced Irish crowd in full cry all around him, the tiny figure in the baseball cap was already making plans.
“I remember it all,” he says. “I got to lead her up and I remember walking down the chute and somebody throwing an Irish flag at me. I was only 11 at the time but I definitely remember thinking as we walked up that I would love to be in Jim Culloty’s position sometime. You always dream growing up, even from when you’re very small, that eventually you’d get to be a jockey and get to go to the festival. But that day was the big one for me. When she won, it definitely opened my eyes as to what I wanted to do with my future.
“Because something like that is away off in the distance for just about everybody. You dream of it but you never think you know how it’s going to happen. You never think you could be lucky enough. But when she won, that made it possible I think. I’ll never forget it, that was the day when I said for sure that this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do anything else.”
Life in the plate
From that point on, Cooper had no time for anything that wasn’t pointing him towards a life in the plate. He was the wick, everything outside racing was the wax. School got burned off especially early, with his last zip of a pencil case coming at the end of his Junior Cert in 2008. His history teacher back then was Marc Ó Sé and when the Kerry defender warned him that all he was doing by walking out the gates was ensuring that he’d be back in a few years looking for a job, Cooper just smiled and put one foot in front of the other.
By then, he had already spent two summers in Dessie Hughes’s yard. He knew all along that he was never going to make it as a jockey living in Tralee so when the time came, leaving school meant leaving Kerry as well. Hughes took him on but because he was so small, he sent him to Kevin Prendergast to start life as a flat jockey. The jumps were all he ever had a grá for though and when his growth spurt came a year or two later, he went back to Hughes. By the time he turned 19, he was first jockey in the yard and well on his way along the yellow brick road.
Bit by bit and race by race, his reputation grew. When he won the conditional jockeys’ title in 2011, it was with the highest number of winners – 37 – that it had ever been won. The following season brought his first Grade One, the Deloitte Novices Hurdle at Leopardstown on 50/1 shot Benefficient. That horse will always feel special as it would later provide him with his first Cheltenham winner, again at a long price.
“I could never figure out why he was so unfancied,” Cooper says. “Fair enough the first day in the Deloitte, you’d accept being 50/1 there because of the other runners in the race (Captain Conan, Cash And Go, Lord Windermere and Sous Les Cieux were in it). But in Leopardstown the second day, I thought he should have been better fancied.
‘Done a great job’
“Okay, he’d had a bad run last time out in heavy ground but we always thought he was a good horse. Tony (Martin) has done a very good job with him to get him to where he is. He’s always been a bit keen but Tony has done a great job of settling him.
“I honestly thought he would run a cracker in the Jewson. Now, I didn’t think he would necessarily beat Dynaste but I thought he would definitely be in the first three or four. I knew he’d be better in that drying ground as well. He showed fierce determination and guts.”
If Benefficient surprised many, it was Our Conor that blew everyone away. His jockey included.
“I think the one I was most surprised with was Our Conor. Not that he won, because I was going over there really fancying him for that race. But just the way he did it was what struck me most.
“There was a lot of talk about him going over and people felt he was an Irish banker but you still couldn’t have thought he’d do it that way. There aren’t many Cheltenham Festival winners who’ve done it like that.”
Nor many 20-year-old jockeys with the cool to facilitate it. The ride on Our Conor is more than likely gone now, with Danny Mullins the happy recipient since Barry Connell bought the horse after Cheltenham.
But Cooper still heads to Punchestown next week with a fine book of rides – for the most part the same ones he rode at Cheltenham – one of which will surely right the most glaring wrong in his CV.
For it has been a season of firsts where the big festivals are concerned. His first Cheltenham winner, followed by two more. His first Aintree winner in First Lieutenant, followed by another on Henry De Bromhead’s Special Tiara. Now all that’s left is Punchestown, a track where he has had winners before but never at the festival.
He’ll tick the box this week. The way his season is going, there’s no safer bet.