Bryan Cooper and Paul Nolan moving up the comeback trail
Pair are grinding away at what they do best in the hope that planets align again
Bryan Cooper: when he lost his job as Gigginstown’s retained rider in the summer of 2017 he had to start again. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
In Liberty Hall last Wednesday evening we watched a one-man band lose a fight with himself onstage. Damon Gough, the Manchester singer-songwriter better known as Badly Drawn Boy, was having one of those nights where he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else.
He’d certainly have leapt at the chance to share it with anyone else but us, an expectant audience of middle-agers loaned out for the night by babysitters across the city.
His guitars either weren’t tuned to his liking or, despite all efforts, couldn’t be. The sound coming back at him from his monitors was driving him demented.
At one stage, after his third or fourth grouch at his engineer that the sound was brutal, someone offered up from the crowd that actually it sounded fine down here. Gough barked back that he didn’t give a f*ck how it sounded out in the arena – it was doing his head in onstage.
There were some decent horses left floundering for the place money behind them, including a Gigginstown pair swallowed up and spat out by Cooper
And yet the man has the tunes. A couple of brilliant albums back around the turn of the millennium buys you a lot of credit with the people who were touched by them through the years. And no matter how bad his mood or how cranky he was getting with his instruments, the crowd hung in there with him, willing him to get through it.
By the end of it all you wouldn’t quite say he strolled off the stage triumphant but he did manage to dig a show out of it. We walked out into the night wishing him the best.
Music has that resonance for people. The past makes the present more forgivable that it ordinarily would be, and more hopeful than it has any right to be. If you’d never heard of Badly Drawn Boy in your life and had just been dragged along to the gig last Wednesday, you wouldn’t have lasted past the fourth song.
But everyone there wanted it to come right and knew somehow that it could. Not that it would, just that it could.
Sport has that resonance too. On Saturday afternoon at Naas, Bryan Cooper came with an immaculately-judged ride on a Paul Nolan-trained horse called Discorama in a beginners’ chase.
It wasn’t the biggest race on the card, and it’s not going to make the season for either Cooper or Nolan. But there were some decent horses left floundering for the place money behind them, including a Gigginstown pair swallowed up and spat out by Cooper on the run from the last to the line.
Cooper and Nolan have different stories to tell about their place in the world of jumps racing these days. But they share a certain similarity too. They were both thought of as up-and-comers to watch once upon a time – Cooper more recently than Nolan, obviously. They’ve both heard the clank of the bucket off the bottom of the well in recent times too.
Back in the mid-2000s, Nolan had a star in the yard in the shape of Accordian Etoile, who came fourth in a Champion Hurdle in 2005. In 25 runs for Nolan he won a shade over €325,000 in prize-money. Put together all the prize-money won by all of Nolan’s horses in the two seasons before this one and the total doesn’t beat that by very much at all. In the 2017/18 season he had 13 winners in total. In 2016/17, he had five.
Cooper’s fall has been arguably even steeper. Nolan would likely never have overtaken Willie Mullins no matter how well things had gone. But Cooper was presumed to be in line to surpass Ruby Walsh some day.
He was just 20 when he rode a famous treble at Cheltenham in 2013, and looked to have the world by the lugs when he won the Gold Cup on Don Cossack three years later. But then he lost his job as Gigginstown’s retained rider in the summer of 2017 and had to start again.
When he was riding for Gigginstown, Cooper got a name for not riding for small trainers. Whether it was fair or not that he earned such a reputation, he has conceded that it was there and it was a real thing.
In sport and in music you don’t get to fight back in private. You have to go out and play with everyone watching and everyone judging
With the patronage of the biggest owners in the game gone by the wayside, he has had to go out and hustle. Along the way he and Nolan have struck up an alliance that neither of them would have imagined possible until very recently.
It has sparked something for them both. Nothing mind-blowing, nothing to take the stars from the sky, but something to offer a bit of light in a game that can so easily stay dark when it gets dark. Discorama was Cooper’s 13th time in the winners’ enclosure this term, which, considering he only managed it 18 times last season, is evidence of a career that is starting to gather a bit of pace again.
It was Nolan’s 11th winner of the season – again suggesting that by the time we get to Punchestown next May, he’ll have easily outstripped the small totals of recent years. Cooper has ridden six of those winners, by the by.
“I was hoping to get a horse that could compete at level weights again, and hopefully he’ll come on from it,” Nolan said on Saturday. And when it gets right down to it, away from the Mullins yard and the Elliott yard and a tiny handful of others, that’s all anyone in a small stable can cross their fingers for. A horse that’s good enough to go in a graded race without it being a waste of everyone’s time. Throw in a jockey who knows what to do with one at that level and suddenly the needle hits the groove again.
Cooper won’t be champion jockey and Nolan won’t be mapped in the trainers’ championship. And Badly Drawn Boy won’t be troubling the charts the way he once did either. But they’re all still at it, still grinding away at the thing they’re best at in the hope that whatever strange force once made the planets align for them can do so again.
In sport and in music you don’t get to fight back in private. You have to go out and play with everyone watching and everyone judging, and you have to get through the gig as best you can, regardless of the result.
Watching on from off-stage, it’s hard not to cheer for people with that sort of fight in them.