'I want to be riding in all the big races, that's all I've ever known'
David Jennings talks to Bryan Cooper about his fast-changing career
To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, the Racing Post is giving away one piece of paid content free each day. Here, David Jennings interviews leading rider Bryan Cooper.
The bumper at Thurles has not yet begun but Bryan Cooper is already loitering in the lobby of the Keadeen Hotel on the outskirts of Newbridge, 100km up the M8. His only mount on the card was 9-1 shot Miss Sassie in the opening beginners' chase. She finished ninth behind Billy's Hope, beaten 48 lengths. This day last year he had four rides on the same card, and three of those were favourites sent off at 8-11, 5-4 and 15-8. Same as it never was.
Cooper was sacked by Michael O'Leary in July, just 16 months after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Don Cossack and less than three months after he rode three Grade 1 winners at the Punchestown festival. His biggest headache used to be picking the right one in a race, now it is getting on one in a race. Well, in Ireland anyway. He doesn't get to gobble up all the Gigginstown goodies anymore and instead relies on British-based snacks to feed his raging appetite on the big days.
He is no longer O'Leary's pilot, yet he has never spent so much time in the air. The late Alan Potts helped ease the excruciating pain of losing the Gigginstown gig by making him his number one rider in Britain and vital victories on the Colin Tizzard-trained Fox Norton and Finian's Oscar at Cheltenham's November meeting helped keep him in the spotlight. It is where he wants to be.
"I love the big days, the big festivals," proclaims the 25-year-old. "I live for them. That's where I thrive. I want to be riding in all the big races. That's all I've ever known."
Why did O'Leary sack him? And how broke up is his body after suffering so many horrific injuries? How did the Potts job come about? Could Fox Norton win the Tingle Creek? Just how good is Finian's Oscar? And why is the coffee taking so long? It is lucky the couches in the Keadeen are comfy because we could be here for a while.
We begin on the morning of July 28, 2017.
"Look, it was always going to come to an end at some stage, wasn't it? I was worried going into Punchestown and feared that it might be coming but I had a fantastic Punchestown and rode three Grade 1 winners, so I thought that would have given me some breathing space. But the summer didn't really go too well. There were a lot of bad horses running and they weren't winning.
"I suppose Michael just wanted to freshen things up. I wasn't in total shock when he told me, but I was surprised when I heard the words. My instant reaction was 'f**k, what do I do now?' Before I got the job I had some brilliant contacts but they were all gone. The way racing is in Ireland at the moment there are three jockeys in every yard, so most of the rides are gone. The days of spares are gone.
"We shook hands when we walked out, so we left on decent terms. He said what he had to say and I said what I had to say. I didn't just say 'great, thanks for everything'. I fought my corner and said what I thought needed to be said. We were there for about an hour and we went through things. He wanted a change and he's entitled to do what he wants. He owns the horses.
"I left there thinking I was a part of the team, but it hasn't quite worked out like that. To be fair, when I got the Potts job Michael was one of the first to text me. I have great respect for him. He took me to the next level and played a big part in my career."
"I was more arrogant and took things for granted when I was younger," he admits with refreshing honesty. "Everything just happened for me. I was riding winners for Dessie Hughes and then for Gigginstown. I was taking everything for granted and knew nothing else. I didn't appreciate it enough. I accepted that things were happening for me and thought that this was the way it was going to be for the rest of my life.
"Those two months of having to build myself back up have done me no harm at all. There are a lot of people who work a lot harder than me but don't get the opportunities I've got. Things have always fallen into place for me. I never looked at the worst-case scenario and always put a positive spin on things. I know now that you have to fight your own battles in this game."
Cooper certainly knows how to battle. He has been at war with injuries since he replaced Davy Russell as Gigginstown's number one back in January 2014. He has fought back from broken legs, arms and pelvis, as well as punctured lungs, cracked ribs and a stubborn shoulder injury, which has been giving him trouble since his Sizing Tennessee spill at Ascot last Friday week. You need to be durable in this game.
"Last winter was tough. It was just one thing after another. I punctured my lung in Galway, then it was my arm, then my pelvis. I got up and walked to the ambulance at Punchestown. I thought I just had a dead leg. When I was told in the hospital that my pelvis was broke I just couldn't believe it. I thought he was taking the piss. How did I get up and walk into the ambulance when I had a broken pelvis? I must have blanked out the pain and tried to convince myself that I was fine.
"Every time I've got hurt so far I've always had brilliant horses to come back for. I've been very lucky like that. When I broke my leg at Cheltenham, I spent the next couple of months licking my lips and thinking about all the stars I was coming back to ride. That always aids the recovery process. My shoulder is sore at the moment but I'll be fine and I'm gunning to get back quick."
Injuries always hurt, but there was a more severe pain during his time with Gigginstown.
"Picking the wrong one was always a killer," he says. "One of the worst days I ever had, certainly from a mental point of view, was the day Outlander won the Lexus. I just couldn't get my head around how he won. The Lexus is a race I love. I loved it growing up and I've been lucky enough to win it twice."
Gigginstown had five runners and Cooper was on the shortest-priced of them, Valseur Lido. He finished fourth.
"I'd ridden no winner over Christmas and I just couldn't get my head around how Outlander had managed to win a Lexus. How did it happen? He had been beaten by Sub Lieutenant at Down Royal then got stuffed by Djakadam in the John Durkan. That was his second or third run of the season, so he was fit that day and had no excuses. He is a very good horse in his own right but it just made no sense to me.
"I travelled to the last on the bridle and thought I was going to bolt up but my lad just didn't seem to stay. Then to make matters worse, here was Outlander coming sweeping by and I wasn't on him. You can take picking the wrong ones in normal, everyday races but not the Grade 1s.
"I laugh now when I think back to when I was winning on some of the ones that Davy [Russell] left behind. It must have been so frustrating for him. I completely understand that now after being in that position. It's horrible."
How does he get over such setbacks? "I am very strong mentally," he replies. "From all the injuries to watching other horses win, I have learned how to cope mentally. See I'm actually quite laid-back. When I get home in the evening I don't think about racing at all. What's done is done and I completely forget about it.
"If someone came into my house after six in the evening and started talking s**t about horses I'd kick them out. 'Go away, I don't want to talk about it' I'd tell them. Once you get into the house it's time to switch off and forget all about racing. There is hardly any racing chat in my place. I would be good friends with Mikey Fogarty and David Mullins and they are the exact same."
Cooper might not want to talk about racing in the evenings but he was only too happy to chat about racing one Sunday morning in early October.
"I met Alan on a Friday in Jessie Harrington's. I would usually be in Jessie's of a Wednesday or Thursday but Kate [Harrington's daughter] and Puppy [Robbie Power] had told me to come in on the Friday as Alan would be there and it would be good for me to meet him.
"I went into the kitchen after riding out and had a good chat with Alan. We came up with an arrangement where I would ride all the ones Puppy couldn't. He told me he thought I was a fantastic rider and he'd love to use me when Puppy wasn't available in Ireland. Then I got a phone call at 7am on the Sunday morning and he told me that he wanted me to ride all his horses in England. He told me I was his English jockey and Puppy was his Irish one. It all happened very quickly.
"It's a great sense of relief to know you're back on proper Grade 1 horses, the likes of Finian's Oscar and Fox Norton. They're going to be running on the big days and that's where I want my name to stay. I've had fantastic success on the big days and I don't want my name to drift away from there.
"Before I won on Fox Norton and Finian's Oscar at Cheltenham, a lot of the English press didn't have a good word to say about me. They kept bringing up negative things. They kept saying how long it was since I'd had a winner and any negative thing they could find they printed. These were my first two big rides since I got sacked and I won on both of them. I felt I proved a lot of people wrong."
Proving people wrong is one of Cooper's favourite chores. Don't expect him to stop now.
Tizzard's three treats
He's going the right way and improving all the time. I'm lucky to have sat on some very good horses over the years, and in particular some very good novices, and he'd be right up there with the best novices I've ridden. He's got speed but he also stays. He jumps very well too, so he's got everything. He has already won around Cheltenham too. Out of all the novice chasers we've seen this season, he looks the best of them. Colin Tizzard knows him better than I do but I would say the JLT looks the obvious target for him. He was winning over 2m4f last season. He has lots of options.
He gave me a lovely feel the whole way in the Shloer. He travelled sweet and took me everywhere I wanted to go. He was deadly the whole way and the result was never in doubt. We went a nice gallop and he jumped great. When Special Tiara began to get tired I was left in front. We got a bit tired on the run-in but it was very testing ground. I didn't knock him about. What he did last year was phenomenal. He was brilliant at Aintree over 2m4f and then to come back and beat Un De Sceaux over 2m was some achievement. He's a high-class horse and he has options over 2m and 2m4f.
He did all his winning last season on good ground, so you might not see the best of him until the spring. If he was going to win off that high a mark at Cheltenham last time in such a hot handicap he would have needed to be a Gold Cup horse. He's probably just short of that bracket, so carrying top weight in handicaps on deep ground is very tough.
Want to read more stories like this? Access daily newspaper content online and enjoy favourites such as Pricewise, our award-winning columnists, RP Sunday, race replays and more when you subscribe to Members’ Club Ultimate. Find out more here