On the last day of his racing life, Bryan Cooper woke in a panic that cemented him to the spot.
It was Wednesday week ago in Cheltenham and he was down to ride three horses on that afternoon’s card. There was one for Willie Mullins, one for Joseph O’Brien and one for his father, Tom. Problem was, he felt nothing but dread at the thought of those rides.
In that moment, Cooper’s fear of falling had finally won a working majority over his love of riding. He knew this day had been coming, he just hadn’t expected it to arrive at this exact place and time. Not at Cheltenham, not in the middle of March. Not with his dad saddling a first festival runner since 2012 and needing his boy to ride it for him. Of all the days for his mind to finally shout stop, he could really have done without it being this one.
But there was no way around it. He had to find an escape route. He texted one of the girls who looked after the horses for his boss, Noel Meade. He made up a half-passable excuse about having sore ribs and told her he wouldn’t be able to ride out that morning. Then he turned his phone to Airplane Mode. If nobody could ring him, nobody could give out to him. Better still, nobody could ask him if he was okay.
He wasn’t okay. He hadn’t been okay for so long, he’d struggle to put a timeframe on it. Definitely a few months. Probably well over a year. If he was to really dig down into it, possibly even the guts of a decade.
However long it was, he couldn’t go on doing this to himself. It didn’t matter that he was still only 30 years old. He had to stop being a jockey.
“When I came out with it on Wednesday and said it to people that were there with me, they were like, ‘How in the name of God were you doing it for so long, thinking about it that way?’ And when I’ve been thinking about it over the last week as well, that’s what’s been in my mind. How did I manage to put myself through it? But that was the main thing that was worrying me. Getting broke up.”
His sister Sarah was staying in the same house and since nobody could get in touch with him, her phone suddenly had steam coming out of it. She barrelled up to his room to ask what the hell he was playing at, only to find a lost soul sitting on the bed.
“I’m done,” he said. When she asked what he was on about, he started to cry and didn’t stop for an hour. David Mullins was staying in the house as well and when he came into the room and suggested going back to sleep for an hour, Cooper said, “No, you don’t realise. This is it. I’m finished.”
Nobody was sure what to do next. Cooper’s best friend and sounding board is the Wexford jockey Mikey Fogarty but he wasn’t answering his phone. He rang his agent Ciaran O’Toole who immediately understood and told him to make two phone calls – one to Noel Meade and one to his father. He didn’t owe anything to anybody else.
By now, Jennifer Pugh was on her way over to the house. Pugh is the Senior Medical Officer for the IHRB, basically the jockeys’ doctor. She has seen them all in every state of disrepair imaginable, physical and mental. She arrived to find him sobbing.
“I was still very emotional at the time,” Cooper says. “And she came in and I could see in her eyes that she was starting to get emotional too, listening to me. I told her straight out what was going on, that I can’t do it anymore.
“She just sat me down and calmed me down a little bit. Then I started to relax a bit more and we figured out a few bits and pieces and I realised that I wasn’t in trouble. And when I knew I didn’t let down Noel, when he was able to understand and was 100 per cent okay with it, then I started to calm down.
“I’d say I cried for an hour. I was crying with emotion but there was a bit of happiness there in my head as well. Happy that I didn’t have to deal with this anymore and I didn’t have to go racing anymore. It was a weight off my shoulders.”
How did he get here? Every way you can think of. Quickly and blissfully at the start, slowly and painfully as the years ticked by. If you drew a graph of Bryan Cooper’s career, it would look like one of those side-on views of a mountain stage in the Tour de France. The highs were the highest you could get. The lows came at him at top speed too.
He was 20 years old when he rode three winners at Cheltenham in 2013. For the last of them, Tony Martin’s Ted Veale in the County Hurdle, he rode as if in a dream.
Martin warned him beforehand not to be in front before the last and he took it to extremes, sitting out the back throughout the first circuit before lapping the field on the way home.
“This gossun,” smiled Martin afterwards, “will be there a long time when Ruby, Barry [Geraghty] and Carberry are gone and retired.”
It wasn’t a minority view. Within nine months, Cooper had taken over from Davy Russell as Gigginstown’s retained rider. For a jumps jockey at the time, there were three jobs that everyone wanted above all others – number one for Willie Mullins (Ruby Walsh), number one for JP McManus (Tony McCoy), number one for Michael O’Leary (Cooper).
He was just 21, 13 years younger than Walsh and 18 younger than McCoy. Nobody needed to talk up the trajectory of his career. It was a given that he was the next superstar of the weighing room.
But no sport is less inclined to make allowances for celebrity. Cooper’s first leg break came in May 2013. It kept him out for four months which, in the penal code of the jumps game, actually counts as a fairly light sentence. Surgery, physio, a bit of time with your feet up and you’re back at it. Summer racing has never been his thing anyway. So, all in all, no biggie.
Cheltenham 2014 was a different, darker tale. Coming to the second last in the Fred Winter, he was leading on a Gigginstown horse called Clarcam. The fall was particularly grisly and resulted in him breaking both his tibia and fibula.
Adrian McGoldrick, the Senior Medical Officer who had been treating jockeys since the mid-1980s, called it “the worst fracture I have ever seen in a lower limb”.
One minute Cooper was about to claim his fourth Cheltenham winner, the next he was in an ambulance, bound for surgery and seven months on the sidelines. If you want a launch date for the fear that has ended his career, the trauma of that week is top of the list.
“I was in Bristol hospital and I had to go down for a second surgery. I remember the guy in the room beside me going down ahead of me. There were six of us in the room and this guy went down before me. And when he came back to the room, he had lost his leg.
“I was up soon after him and I was in bits. I remember signing this form and them telling me, ‘You know, there is a chance that you might come back with no leg here’. This poor fella was in the bed beside me and he was going, ‘You could be the same’. That hit me very hard at the time and it stayed with me. I suppose it has played a part in what’s after happening too.”
That was nine years ago, more or less to the day. He dealt with it the only way a jumps jockey knows – avoidance, suppression, self-deception. It stayed with him, yes. But only as a lodger, under strictest house rules. He did his level best never to allow it near the front room.
Frankly, he never felt he had a choice in the matter. Jockeys will fall, on average once in every 15 rides. Jockeys will get hurt. Over the years, Cooper has broken his leg, his arm, his pelvis, countless fingers, lacerated his kidney, punctured his lung.
He has watched all that and worse happen to those around him. He saw his housemate Robbie McNamara take a fall in 2015 that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He lived all this, day after day, year after year. And still did all he could to ignore the worries within him.
If that sounds self-defeating in the long run, you need to understand two truths. One, the life of a jumps jockey just doesn’t have a lot of room in it for this specific flavour of fear. Every race comes down to a series of small decisions about pace and positioning and timing and jumping. Fear makes you hesitant, it contaminates the very decision-making on which winning and losing is based.
Fear makes you want to stay out of trouble. So maybe you ride a little wider or sit a little further back in the pack. Or worse, you don’t fully commit when your horse needs to put in a big leap. In any of these scenarios, the best thing that will happen is you get beaten. The worst is exactly the sort of fall you’re trying to avoid. Fear has no friends in the weighing room. Cooper wasn’t about to welcome it into his circle.
But even more relevant is the second truth. His approach worked. Once he locked his fear up in a safe at the back of his mind and just ploughed on, he entered the most successful spell of his career. He came back to Cheltenham in 2015 and won the RSA on Don Poli. He very nearly won the Gold Cup on Road To Riches. Cooper had stormed back from the worst thing that had ever happened to him and shown everyone he could deliver.
It got even better after the summer. In 2015/16, he rode 94 winners in Ireland. Since the turn of the century, only five jockeys have ridden more in a season – Walsh, Geraghty, Carberry, Russell and Paul Townend. The gods of the weighing room. And when he capped it all off with the 2016 Gold Cup on Don Cossack, he was exactly where he had always wanted to be.
There was always pressure, for sure. Gigginstown had armies of horses and they were never shy about running them against each other in the biggest races. Choosing which one to ride was a first-world problem but calling it that never made it any easier to solve. Getting it wrong was never a good look. Getting it right brought relief as much as anything.
“I loved it for a certain period of time. I was riding the best horses and I was delivering plenty of winners. I definitely left some behind me, every jockey does. But I knew I wasn’t going to be riding until I was 40. It’s not something you have to do forever. There’s so many other things you can go and do.”
This is Bryan Cooper’s second retirement, believe it or not. The first came in August 2019 – he just didn’t say it out loud in public. He’d had a couple of bad years, in and out of the saddle. The O’Learys sacked him from the Gigginstown job in the summer of 2017, partly for his attitude, partly for his work ethic, mostly for the fact that he wasn’t winning enough.
He spent the next two years presuming the phone was going to ring with trainers eager to use him now that he wasn’t a retained rider. And getting more and more pissed off when it didn’t.
It all came to a head one Saturday night in Dublin. He hated his job, and he had no plausible route to getting back up on good horses. All it took was the wrong feeling on the wrong night, and everything crashed.
“I had just been living in this bubble thinking everything’s going to be okay,” he says. “But what I was doing was brain-dead. I was just living each day thinking it was all going to change by itself. But it wasn’t. I spent that night in tears. And I realised, right, I need to figure some of my shit out here.
“It was a rough time for me and my parents. That was when I decided to pack up and go to Australia and figure out what the f**k am I going to do with myself. In my head, I was finished riding. I had a statement done up and everything. I was gone and I wasn’t coming back. I was at rock bottom, no trainer wanted to use me. They all thought, ‘Oh, his bottle is gone, he’s finished’. And my bottle wasn’t great at the time.”
So he went to Australia for a few weeks. He travelled around and got out of the racing bubble and hacked through the briars in his head. He sat in bars with people who had never heard of the Irish jockey Bryan Cooper, who wouldn’t know a champion hurdler from a two-humped camel. It made him realise that the world keeps spinning regardless of what he does or doesn’t do on a horse. He came home a different person. Calmer, nicer. Someone with perspective.
Salvation came from the most unlikely source. Lucky Phil was a mare in his dad’s yard that had run 14 times without ever winning, eight of them with Cooper on board. He got back from Australia with no intention of riding anything for anyone. But he couldn’t say no to his father.
“He begged me to ride her at Gowran one day. I just got something in my head, thinking, ‘You can’t just go out like this. You will regret it so much. Quit now and it’s basically what everyone has been saying about you’. So I rode her and she won. It was my first ride in months. Everyone actually thought I was injured. She won and I thought, ‘Grand, I’ll tip away for another while.’”
Lucky Phil raced 29 times in her life – this was her only win. But it was enough to keep the flame lit in her jockey. And so it went. He teamed up with the Nolan brothers in Wexford for a couple of seasons and found his way back. In 2021, at the no-crowds Cheltenham, he finally picked up his ninth festival winner – Mrs Milner in the Pertemps. Over time, he started getting rides again for Willie Mullins, for Gordon Elliott, for Gigginstown. He became Noel Meade’s retained rider.
“I was enjoying being in the weighing room. There was no pressure on me. But there was still always something in the back of my head. I knew I wasn’t going to do it for another 10 years. I said I’d give it a go and see what happens and I got back to a level I’m proud of. But I was firmly content at Punchestown last year that I’d do one more and that would be it.”
His plan was to ride out this season, finish up at Punchestown, let a few days pass and then release a statement calling time. But over the past few months, all that stored-up trauma, all those tiny droplets of fear, everything built and built until the dam finally broke.
He mentioned his bottle earlier – jockeyspeak for the fearlessness that is the base requirement for doing the job. Losing your bottle has always been the great taboo of the weighing room. Cooper isn’t the first jockey to retire because he can’t face the thought of falling anymore but you’ll spend a long time digging through the archives before you find too many who’ve admitted to it.
Here’s what it feels like. He spent Tuesday in Cheltenham knocking about with David Mullins and a few others. He has never liked going racing on his days off but the lads were good company and he enjoyed it well enough. It was just that every time he looked at his watch or flicked on his phone, he found himself mentally counting down the hours to the three rides he was going to have to suit up for the next day.
He went for dinner with his dad and a few others on Tuesday night and couldn’t bring himself to tell them how he was feeling. Instead, he did what he had always done. Packed it all into his mental suitcase and sat on it to try and get the zipper closed. He went to bed and though he hardly slept, he still convinced himself it would be okay in the morning. But it wasn’t.
Now that it’s done, he feels liberated. His only regret is letting his father down. Tom Cooper is a small trainer in Kerry who had flashes of success in the 2000s with horses like Total Enjoyment and Forpadydeplasterer. The last decade has been lean though and it was a big deal for him to bring a horse over for the Champion Bumper this year.
“I feel really bad the way I did it over there because he had a runner and it was his first runner there since 2012. It was so much pressure for him because he has a new owner in the yard. I let him down there. I did. And it does upset me. But I had to do it. We’ll have a pint and I know deep down he understands. He’s my biggest supporter.”
So what now? The first day of the rest of his life, is what. He’ll stay in racing, obviously. The bloodstock side of the game fascinates him and someone with his experience and his honesty will be a serious addition to whichever racing media outlet comes looking.
Retiring now is the right thing for him. But more than that, telling people why is right for him too. Dreading the falls and worrying about getting hurt isn’t unique to Bryan Cooper. Copping to it might be, though.
“It’s a proudness thing. But I always knew, since I realised I was going to stop this year, that I’d be blatantly honest about why I’m stopping. Because I’m young to retire, I know that. I was always going to tell the gospel truth of it.
“The injuries have taken their toll, they’ve caught up with me and I can’t go on doing it. But I don’t want it to take away from the career I had. I achieved everything I wanted to, I had a career that 95 per cent of jockeys would have had as a childhood dream. This is for my own wellbeing. I have to do this.”