Cheltenham Festival: Baby-faced Cooper underlines status as new Irish hero

Successive victories on final day cap a superb week for heir apparent to McCoy and Walsh

After the trauma, the rapture. Bryan Cooper is 20 years old, going on 15. The mud splattered around his mouth and cheeks after his second winner of the day might have been a comedy beard introduced to add substance to a face yet to feel the cold embrace of a razor.

On Gold Cup day it fell to the kid from Kildare to lift the sombre mood that had settled in the lee of Cleeve Hill following the calamitous fall of J T McNamara the previous afternoon. Cooper is the lad talked up as the heir to the fabled Irish trio of A P McCoy, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty. Before the convenient withdrawal of Sunnyhillboy released McCoy to fill the vacancy on Sir Des Champs in the big one, Cooper was in the slot to replace the unfortunate Davy Russell.

Cooper went to post for the first race, the JCB Triumph Hurdle, on Our Conor, still processing the elation of a maiden Festival winner the day before. If his ride on Benefficient delivered a shock result in the Jewson Novices’ Chase, Our Conor shaped an entirely different experience, with Cooper tearing up the hill to bring  a leading Irish hope home by 15 lengths.

For the four days of the Festival this barrio is arguably the biggest Irish settlement outside Dublin. An estimated 15,000 passed through the turnstiles, a good number waiting for Cooper in the parade ring. The walk of champions from tape to winner’s enclosure is a career highlight for any strapped to a saddle. Cooper was at full height in his stirrups and draped in the tricolour to receive the benediction of the madding crowd. 

“I was looking [in the race], I thought the other horses were hiding or something. He has such a touch of class. I had to pinch myself. I’m sure it will snap in the next week or two,” Cooper said of his second Festival win. His third would come on Ted Veale in the very next race, the Vincent O’Brien Handicap Hurdle. The margin, a length and a half, was less emphatic but left him no less ecstatic.

“When I got my first winner the other day I would have settled for that, I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. To get two more, especially on Gold Cup day is magical.”

And masked, no doubt, any disappointment he might have felt after deferring in the Gold Cup to the great McCoy. “I didn’t really think about being in the race too much. There are a lot of jockeys ahead of me with a lot more experience, the likes of Tony McCoy. I said to myself, ‘If it happens, it happens’. I’m not complaining. I couldn’t have asked for more. The Irish in the crowd, the atmosphere they give you is unbelievable, the cheering and the flags. They are a great bunch.”

Who’s to say the Cooperman’s innate feel would not have fed Sir Des Champs past Bobs Worth in the desperate churn up the hill that ultimately decided the Gold Cup places? Maybe next year. Cooper has had the week of his life, the soaring flip side of a business that can just as easily break a soul in two.

The plight of McNamara cast a shadow over Cheltenham. Even at the embryonic career stage, Cooper understands that results are not the only measure of success in this game. 

“We are all thinking of John Thomas so much,” he said. “It’s so sad. He’s done so much for racing and had so much success, we wish him the very best. And I’d like to dedicate these winners to him. That’s the other side of the sport that people don’t realise.”