Donn McClean: The life of Bryan

  • By: Donn McClean
  • Last Updated: March 4 2014, 9:39 GMT

Donn McClean catches up with Gigginstown jockey Bryan Cooper ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

  • Bryan Cooper on Trifolium
  • Cooper misses Our Conor 
  • Cooper after winning the then 'Jewson' on Benefficient 

Rewind 11 months and three weeks, Cheltenham 2013 Day Three, a 20-year-old Bryan Cooper sits still on Benefficient as they start off down the hill in the Jewson Chase, Dynaste and Captain Conan moving up on his outside.

He knows that his horse has a little bit left, but he doesn't want to burst him. He allows the others pass, but makes sure that he clings to their coat-tails. In reality, in that moment he thinks that he will probably finish third, but he saves some energy for the final climb just in case, holds onto his horse until they approach the second last fence. Then he spots a stride and a gap on the inside.

"There was no point in wasting energy going around them."

One, two, up! Benefficient pings the second last fence, just as he has pinged the previous 12. The final fence looms and Cooper sees one last stride. One, two, up. Once again his horse responds, and suddenly - how did that happen? - he finds himself a length and a half clear and driving to the line. Up the hill and into the record books, his first Cheltenham Festival winner.

"Benefficient was brilliant, but I thought that was it," Cooper recalls. "I thought that was my winner for the week."

The build-up had been all about Our Conor. All the media attention, all the pre-Cheltenham hype, all everybody wanted to talk about was Our Conor. Our Conor didn't disappoint either. Once again, Cooper sat still at the top of the hill in the Triumph Hurdle the following day as Dessie Hughes' horse just lobbed along underneath him and came clear of his rivals. Indeed, he came so far clear that, on the run to the final flight, such was the quietness that enveloped him, splendid isolation, for a split second Cooper thought that he might have taken the wrong course.

Then he went out on Ted Veale a half an hour later and won the County Hurdle.

"It took a long time for it all to sink in," says Cooper. "Three winners at Cheltenham. To be honest, I don't think it really sank in until six weeks later, when I was sitting there with my leg up on a stool."

Bryan Cooper on his best chance... "Trifolium in the Arkle. It's a hard race to win, but he is such a good jumper, and we know that he acts at Cheltenham. I have ridden him twice, and I have got a great ride off him both times. He could run a big race."
Bryan Cooper on his best chance...

There is never a good time to break your leg, but if you are a National Hunt rider and you had to pick a time, you probably couldn't pick a better time than early May. If you had to pick four months to spend on the sidelines, you would probably pick May to August over just about any other four-month stretch on the calendar.

Bryan Cooper's upward trajectory continued unabated, his broken leg hardly a blip. But things are different now. Two significant events have happened in the last 12 months that have changed the rider's Cheltenham landscape irrevocably. First, Our Conor was bought by Barry Connell, which means that the horse is now ridden by the owner's retained rider, Danny Mullins. Second, in January, Cooper was appointed first jockey to Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud, which gives him a depth of Cheltenham riches that he could hardly have imagined a year ago.

"I miss Our Conor terribly," says the rider. "I would do anything to get back on him. But I have some great rides at Cheltenham. I have just been going through them, each race, one by one. Good ride in that, good ride in that, good ride in that. I have a good ride in most races. I just need to get there in one piece now."

In the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month, he chose First instead of Last, he chose to ride First Lieutenant instead of Last Instalment. Gigginstown's running plans have not been finalised yet, but it is likely that, on anything other than very fast ground, Last Instalment will be their Gold Cup number one this year.

"Last Instalment couldn't have been any more impressive than he was in the Hennessy," says Cooper. "Going to the second last fence, I thought that I was going to get to him on First Lieutenant, but then he just went away again and I couldn't get near him. Nobody could get near him. And Philip Fenton had said that there was improvement to come. He should be a great ride in the Gold Cup."

First Lieutenant gained the Grade 1 win that his talent deserves at Aintree last year. Second to Cue Card in the Ryanair Chase at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, it looks like his owner's race is the race for him again this year.

"A decision will be made over the weekend, but if it comes up soft, it looks like the Ryanair is the race for him. Cue Card went a million miles and hour last year, and he was able to go with him. There is no Cue Card in the race this year. He is the class horse of the race."

Don Cossack is on track for the RSA Chase.

"He is in great form. He worked great on Sunday. We are still learning about him, but the step up to three miles could be the thing for him. He travels so well, he has a lot of speed, so I will ride him for speed, use his jumping."

Tiger Roll in the Triumph Hurdle.

"He was only having his second ever run in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, and his first for Gordon (Elliott), so to get to within two lengths of Guitar Pete was a huge performance. I'd say there is a lot more improvement to come, and Cheltenham will suit him well. He will love the hustle and bustle of a Triumph Hurdle."

Rule The World, appropriately, in the World Hurdle.

"It's a tough race now, but you couldn't ignore him. He won well at Naas and he worked well the other day. Remember, he was only beaten by The New One in the Neptune Hurdle last year, and he is one of the favourites for the Champion Hurdle."

There are others. Lieutenant Colonel in the Neptune Hurdle, Bright New Dawn or Mozoltov in the JLT Chase, Valseur Lido in the Supreme, Savello and Thunder And Roses and a host of other possibilities in the handicaps. But ask Cooper to nominate the ride to which he is most looking forward, and he is unequivocal.

"Trifolium in the Arkle. It's a hard race to win, but he is such a good jumper, and we know that he acts at Cheltenham. I have ridden him twice, and I have got a great ride off him both times. Charles (Byrnes) couldn't be happier with him. He could run a big race."

But the young rider is not getting carried away.

"Last year was brilliant. I remember thinking, I wouldn't mind doing this again. But if I could have just one winner this year, I would be delighted. Even one winner would be great."

• For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.


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