Bryan Cooper back in business and determined to grasp his second chance

Mature jockey has experienced highs and lows of racing and now has fresh perspective

The crowd in Thurles last Sunday was small but they weren’t shy about what they had come for.

Rachael Blackmore had one ride at her local track after a week of being feted at awards shows here and in the UK and even the downy quilt of fog that settled over the course for the afternoon couldn't obscure her star power. Back to the day job, sent out on the favourite Mind Your Money for Henry de Bromhead in a handicap hurdle.

Every race has its own power dynamic though. You are either setting the agenda or you’re reacting to it. Bryan Cooper bucked out on Mighty Tom but he didn’t tear off into the clear grey yonder. The biggest lead he built up was five lengths. Here and there, he took a pull on the reins to let Blackmore hove up closer, only to roll on and stretch it out when the mood took him. There was no stage in the race where he wasn’t in charge.

When Mighty Tom won by six lengths, Racing UK pundit Gary O’Brien chuckled that Cooper had “played the role of pantomime villain at Christmas, beating Rachael Blackmore into second”.


In truth, there wasn’t a lot she could have done about it. Cooper’s expert ride took the decision out of her hands. He knows a little about star power too.

Cooper is 29 now, with a multitude of lives already lived. The win on Mighty Tom was his 33rd of the season, a significant number in that it equals his total for the previous two years combined. Presuming a reasonable run of health, this will be his best season in five years.

“It has been a good year,” he says. “I was there on the big stage again. A Cheltenham winner, a Punchestown festival winner, Leopardstown Grade One winner. All the big days, I delivered, which for me was very important. I took every opportunity I got and grabbed it with both hands and did what I could do with it.

"I suppose in this game, when you go cold, you go freezing cold. And it takes you a while before you warm back up again. It's like everything – Lewis Hamilton isn't going to be a champion Formula One driver if he's in a Fiat Punto. You have to take what you're given. But it was only me who could change things and it took me a while to realise that. Thankfully things have changed around a bit."

If you mapped a graph of Cooper's career, it would look like a row of shark's teeth. That unforgettable Cheltenham in 2013 when he rode three winners as a 20-year-old. Appointed as Gigginstown's main rider in January 2014. A grisly leg break at Cheltenham that March, which kept him out for almost nine months. A couple of good seasons with Gigginstown on his return, culminating in the Gold Cup victory on Don Cossack in 2016. Sacked by the O'Learys 16 months later. Searching for a road out of the wilderness ever since.

Small world

For a sport that has millions of euros washing through it every year, racing is a very small world. Cooper made it to the top of that world in an eyeblink, probably without really understanding how much he owed to luck and timing.

There was never a doubt he had talent – but plenty of jockeys have talent. He made the mistake of assuming talent was enough, of coasting along on it without doing the grunt work to buttress it.

“I suppose I had got sucked into the rock star lifestyle for a little bit. It wasn’t ideal. I had a lot of success very young and I thought this was going to be the way of it for the rest of my life. But I can tell you one thing – when it stops and when it dries up and reality finally hits you, you never feel further away.”

Even when Gigginstown pulled the plug, that reality took a while to intrude. He got a job as retained rider for Alan Potts in the UK, only for Potts to die suddenly a month later. He came back home and, on the face of it, he was now free to ride for whoever wanted him. Surely there were dozens of trainers who hadn't popped the question before because they knew what the answer would be? Surely they would come calling now?

“I would have been going along in my head thinking, ‘Ah, it’s only a small dry spell, something will come around next week. And if it doesn’t, it’ll happen the week after’. And that just wasn’t the case. I went on like that for about a year or 18 months, never really addressing anything, just sort of going, ‘Well sure everyone knows where I am and what I can do.’”

Things came to a head after the Galway festival in 2019. Disillusioned after another nothing week, Cooper decided he had enough. He got on a plane and headed for Australia. He told only his family, the trainer Paul Nolan and a few friends. He went on his own to be on his own.

I got it in my head that I wasn't wanted by any of the top four trainers any more

“I didn’t tell anybody. Everyone thought I was injured and that was the official explanation but it wasn’t that at all. I just wasn’t quite sure what I was at and I definitely had a few question marks as to whether I’d come back at all.

“I got it in my head that I wasn’t wanted by any of the top four trainers any more. I was very pig-headed and stubborn and I couldn’t see a way past that. I thought there was no way of getting back in with them. I dealt with things in the wrong way after the Gigginstown thing went belly-up.”

Why he was going to Australia, he wasn’t particularly sure. His family asked – not unreasonably – if it wouldn’t be better to go and clear his head somewhere that wasn’t all the way on the other side of the planet. He didn’t have a good answer for them. All he knew was that he wanted to put as much distance between himself and his sport as he could.

"You get sucked into the racing bubble. I had never been away on my own before. Before I left, I had a chat with Mikey Fogarty and Matt O'Hanlon, the Wexford hurler. I would be good friends with the two of them. And Matt said to me, 'Look, when you go over there, nobody is actually going to give a shite who you are or what you do. They couldn't care less.'

“And they were so right. When you get out of the country, nobody knows or cares who you are. They haven’t heard of y ou. When you realise that, it takes you completely out of the bubble. You go from thinking that this is the most important thing in the world to realising that the world is huge and you’re only a tiny, tiny piece of it.

In hostels

“I went staying in hostels in Australia. I didn’t want to, not at all. But I was told to do it because it was the only way I was going to meet people. I was shitting myself because you have to go and talk to people and introduce yourself. And it isn’t, ‘Oh, I’m Bryan Cooper, I’m a jockey in Ireland’. Because they don’t care. Most of them don’t even know what horse racing is. You have to go, ‘I’m Bryan. How are you?’

“And it was great for me. It made me realise that there is another world out there outside of horse racing. At the end of the day, nobody is spending a minute of their day giving you a second thought. Everybody is just getting on with their life, dealing with whatever’s going on with them. You get so involved and so immersed in racing. Getting out of the bubble for those few weeks really gave me a kick up the arse. From there, things started turning.”

The pandemic helped too, in a strange kind of way. He moved back to Kerry to help his father Tom around the place after he had to let three lads go out of the yard. He grafted harder than at any time since he was a teenager. Manual labour, putting up fences, shovelling shit. If Australia hadn’t knocked the airs and graces out of him, a couple of months back home surely did.

When racing got back going, bits and pieces started happening for him again. The Nolans found a couple of good ones in Latest Exhibition and Discorama and he started winning races on weekends again. David Casey mentioned it might be good if he came and rode out for Willie Mullins occasionally and so he did and it led to a Grade One winner last Christmas.

Cheltenham came around and he booted in his first festival winner in four years when Mrs Milner skated home in the Pertemps. When he crossed the line in front of the empty grandstand, the only cheer he could hear was his own. It was the only one he needed.

“There was a real sense of relief. The lack of crowds didn’t overly bother me. I had that experience before. I felt bad for the lads who were having their first Cheltenham winner. That’s hard, when there’s no crowd there and they don’t get the full experience from it.

“But for me, the crowds didn’t matter that day. It was more a personal thing. It was relief. It felt like a massive turning point. It told the public that I was back, that I still had that ability that I had all those years ago.”

So on he goes. After years of spending the week before Christmas worrying if there’d be anything at all decent going, he already knows he’s heading to Kempton to ride Asterion Furlonge in the King George. All those months and years where he couldn’t see a way back into the big time and now he’s riding the biggest Mullins hope in the biggest Christmas race in the UK.

Another chance. Time to go grab it.