BRYAN COOPER, the golden boy wonder of Irish racing, has enjoyed the best of times of Cheltenham – he announced his arrival with brilliant wins aboard Beneffficent, Our Conor and Ted Veale in 2013.
He has also experieced the worst of times at the National Hunt Festival – a shattering fall from Clarcam in 2014 left him with a badly broken leg as his career hung in the balance.
And last year’s meeting, his third as a senior jockey, was a bittersweet one – Don Poli’s remorseless win in the RSA Chase was offset by a series of bans for whip and riding offences, most notably aboard Gold Cup third Road To Riches, which saw Cooper miss the Grand National meeting as the pressure of the occasion got the better of him and his temperament.
As for this year, the fresh-faced Cooper cannot afford to lose his cool. As retained rider to Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary’s formidable Gigginstown House Stud operation, expectations are high – the 23-year-old’s book of big race rides is second only to the champions at Ruby Walsh’s disposal.
Yet they also require the jockey to make the biggest calls of his career – Gigginstown could have as many as four runners in the Gold Cup and Cooper’s choice appears to revolve around Don Poli and Don Cossack.
Trained by the all-conquering Willie Mullins, Don Poli is a grinder with proven course form – he’s already a dual Festival winner – and beat National winner Many Clouds in an attritional race at Aintree last December.
In contrast, Gordon Elliott’s Don Cossack is perceived as being more flashy, but has failed to fire on two previous visits to Cheltenham. And he’s already given Cooper enough nightmares to last a lifetime.
After a below-par ride in last year’s Ryanair Chase, Cooper was suspended when the horse galloped to victory at Aintree under Sir AP McCoy. And, when Don Cossack ranked that form in the Punchestown Gold Cup, the luckless rider had stayed loyal to Don Poli.
Cooper then endured another nightmare in Kempton’s King George Chase on Boxing Day when hampered by the aggressive tactics deployed by Paddy Brennan on Cue Card - Britain’s main Gold Cup hope - before crashing out at the second last.
Understandably, he won’t reveal his hand until final declarations on Wednesday. “If you get it wrong you’ll be kicking yourself for six months afterwards,” he said.
The aforementioned Walsh faced a similar dilemma in 2008 when forced to choose between stable companions Kauto Star and Denman and ultimately called it wrong as the latter stole the show under Sam Thomas.
Walsh must also decide between two potential mounts, with last year’s runner-up Djakadam and the brilliant Vautour both going for gold.
“I wasn’t even riding when Ruby had the choice between Kauto Star and Denman. I remember sitting down and watching it and thinking it was a great position to be in, and now here I am five or six years later and I’m in that position,” said Cooper. “The way I look at it is it would be a lot worse if I was sitting in the canteen and someone else was riding and I was only watching.”
Assessing both horses, the poker-faced jockey added: “It’s really this time of year Don Cossack starts to come to himself. His coat starts to come out and, as we saw last season, this is his time of year. Gordon has been prepping him for that one day.
“Don Poli was his usual self when he schooled the other day. He never sets the world alight with anything he does, but he jumped fantastic. I couldn’t be happier with him.”
Cooper nominates Elliott’s No More Heroes, favourite for the Wednesday’s RSA Chase for novices, as his most likely winner. “He’s the one that stands out,” said the rider who does not intend to lose any sleep in advance of a season-defining week.
“I don’t have any trouble sleeping. It would take a bomb to wake me up. There’ll be a bit of nerves, but if I could get a winner in the first day or two it would be a big help as you can settle into it then.
“I’m only 23 and I’m in a position that probably half the people in England and Ireland, or maybe more than half, would love to be in. I’m just very lucky to have those horses to choose from.”
Win or lose, they are words that Bryan Cooper will need to cherish at Cheltenham.