Cooper’s year ends on a high with Irish success

Bryan Cooper celebrates after riding  Road to Riches to victory.
Bryan Cooper celebrates after riding Road to Riches to victory.
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BRYAN Cooper’s year has ended as it started – with big race wins in the iconic emerald and white colours of Gigginstown House Stud.

Four Grade One winners at Leopardstown’s prestigious Christmas meeting vindicated the abrupt decision of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and his brother Eddie to recruit the young pretender on this day last year in succession to their longstanding No 1 rider Davy Russell.

Yet the 22-year-old’s run of success is even more miraculous because of the speed of his recovery from a broken right leg that was shattered in a horrific fall at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

As Russell was winning the Gold Cup on Lord Windermere, his successor was emerging from lengthy surgery to plate his shattered limb back together after coming to grief on Clarcam two days previously. Many feared it was the end of Cooper’s career.

How ironic, therefore, that Cooper’s first notable triumph at Leopardstown this week should have been on the Gordon Elliott-trained Clarcam who looks to be one of the most exciting novice chase prospects on both sides of the Irish Sea and bound for the Arkle Trophy at the National Hunt Festival.

And how poignant that the second major success for this most likable of riders should have come on Lieutenant Colonel in the Christmas Hurdle.

For, while Cooper was working overtime in the gym to accelerate his recovery, and then riding with the inconvenience of a leg brace, the horse’s trainer Dessie Hughes – one of the great gentlemen of racing and the father of champion Flat jockey Richard – was losing his fight to cancer.

Lieutenant Colonel, who was winning his second successive Grade One race after being switched from fences back to hurdles, is now trained by Hughes’s daughter Sandra.

Like Cooper, she believes the horse can graduate into Ladbrokes World Hurdle contention. “This meant everything to me,” the jockey told The Yorkshire Post. “Without Dessie, I wouldn’t be where I am now – whether it be riding three winners at Cheltenham in 2013 or wearing the Gigginstown silks. He taught me what it takes to be a jockey and I’ll never forget him.

“I joined up with him in the school holidays, and then came through the ranks with him. This win meant an awful lot to me. Fair play to Sandra and head lad Bob Hennessy, they’re doing a great job keeping things going and are working very hard.

“You have to remember this winner is only five so there’s probably plenty of improvement to come from him. Cheltenham wouldn’t bother him. You could sit on him a bit more and ride a race. He’d have a bit of boot around there and I think it would suit him.”

Cooper, known as the ‘iron man’ in the weighing room because of the amount of metal that he carries, then won the prestigious Lexus Chase on the gallant Road To Riches who is now Gold Cup-bound. He believes Noel Meade’s horse will have the stamina to cope with the Cheltenham hill – the challenge will be settling his mount against a confirmed front-runner like King George VI Chase winner Silviniaco Conti. “That’s the one we all have to beat,” added the fresh-faced Cooper.

The jockey’s week ended with the Willie Mullins-trained Don Poli winning the Topaz Novices Chase. He’s now a leading contender for the three-mile RSA Chase in which he is expected to do battle against the Tom Scudamore-ridden Kings Palace.

“This fellow is a bit special, he really is very good. We don’t really know what’s underneath the bonnet yet. He’s a top-class horse,” said Cooper after a year in which his own fortunes encapsulated racing’s ups and downs.