Cooper goes for glory on Our Conor in Triumph Hurdle

Kerry jockey seems to be on his way to top

Bryan Cooper is led in after his victory on Tony Martin’s Benefficient in the Jewson Novices’ Chase.

Bryan Cooper is led in after his victory on Tony Martin’s Benefficient in the Jewson Novices’ Chase.


Barry Geraghty famously declared pressure is for tyres. Even if he doesn’t fully believe that, he believes it enough to keep the stresses of riding Cheltenham favourites in context. And that helps him do what top jockeys do: perform when it counts most.

Cheltenham 2013 has emphasised that again. The easy option for Ruby Walsh on board Hurricane Fly would have been to flap both physically and mentally when the Champion Hurdle appeared to be slipping from his grasp. Instead he did next to nothing, probably the hardest option of all. 

Things didn’t pan out exactly how Geraghty would have liked on Simonsig either in the Arkle. But he too got the hotpot home.

It’s what separates the leaders of this hardest of professions from the others; finding a way to win. The easy riposte is to say they have the raw material underneath them. But that raw material is under McCoy, Walsh, Geraghty and Co precisely because of their proven ability to perform under pressure.

They have something else in common too. All waved bye to 30 a good while ago. With McCoy declaring he sees no reason why he can’t keep going to 40, the elite few at the top ain’t going anywhere. And yet in a sport where eyes are always searching for the next big thing, there is a glaring gap – on both sides of the Irish Sea – for a new young riding star.

Bryan Cooper’s name is now centre-stage to fill any vacuum there might be. Gifted, just 20, and with a first festival success under his belt following Benefficient’s win yesterday, he has already proven his big-race credentials.

So much so that when names were being tossed around like confetti yesterday for the coveted Gold Cup ride on Sir Des Champs, Cooper’s was bang at the top of the list.

Neverthless, when he puts Our Conor to the tape for today’s Triumph Hurdle, it will be the biggest challenge of the Kerryman’s burgeoning career.

Our Conor is no 20 to 1 shot like Benefficient, no last-minute spare a la First Lieutenant. A lot of preparation has gone into this and the pressure to get it right – and the implications if things go wrong – are there every time a jockey rides a favourite at Cheltenham. However, Cooper gives every impression of being perfectly at home on that big stage.

Intelligent rider
“If he keeps his head right, and that’s always an issue with youngfellas, then he can go an awful long way because it’s crying out for a young jockey to come through,” says First Lieutenant’s trainer Mouse Morris. “He’s a very intelligent rider who’s also a horseman, and a jockey. It’s unusual to get the two, but he is good,” Morris adds.

It’s a common theme. Benefficient’s trainer Tony Martin describes him as the next Ruby Walsh, who’ll be around when the star names of today are putting their feet up.

“Cooper and Townend stand out, and by a long way,” considers the ex-Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle-winning jockey, Conor O’Dwyer. “In fact if you asked me to name a third, I’d struggle.”

O’Dwyer is now a trainer and has used Cooper on Folsom Blue, a horse owned by Gigginstown who increasingly use Cooper when their number one, Davy Russell, can’t take a mount. “I can’t find a negative with Bryan. He uses his head and doesn’t interfere with horses. He doesn’t panic and is a very quiet sort of rider which I like,” he adds. “He also seems to be a nice fella which can go a long way in this game.”

But only so far: nice is no good when beaten, and especially so at Cheltenham. Cooper’s reviews have been almost uniformly positive up to now. But Our Conor is something of an Irish festival banker, with all the emotional and financial investment that implies. It’s a heavy burden of expectation for anyone just out of their teens to cope with, but plenty hardened professionals expect this to be only the start of Cooper’s story.

His boss, Dessie Hughes, has already described him as the best young rider through his hands since Charlie Swan. Michael Hourigan, as mentor to no less than Adrian Maguire and Timmy Murphy, has used Cooper too and appreciates the comparison to Swan.  “I’d see him as a future champion. ” Hourigan says. “But you have to be able to do it at Cheltenham. It’s like the Olympics; you’ve got to medal. And it’s best if it is gold!” he adds.

Winning on an Irish favourite here is pretty much Olympic final stuff. So, no pressure then. The best endorsement for Cooper’s future, though, is most expect him to step up to the challenge.