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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

An Interview with Ex-jockey Liam Cooper

At the beginning, Liam Cooper only had a loose connection to racing through his uncles, John and David Goulding, who were both good jockeys through the 1970s and ‘80s, and with John going onto train. It was here that Liam, 42, started his association with racing by mucking out and learning to ride.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

He became a successful National Hunt jockey, riding primarily for Jonjo O’Neill. He started with him at Penrith but moved to Jackdaws Castle, Gloucestershire when the whole yard moved there. During a successful career, Liam rode 197 winners. The big ones included the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle on Intersky Falcon on Boxing Day in 2003, adding to the Fighting Fifth victory the season before, a Grade 2 on Sh Booml at Haydock and the Martell Handicap Chase at Aintree in 2002 on Carbury Cross in the Arkle colours of the Duchess of Westminster. Yet, he was most closely connected to the JP McManus-owned Clan Royal on which he won a Topham and a Becher. They were second to Amberleigh House in a Grand National, despite dropping his whip and portrayed great horsemanship – gut-wrenching bad luck in a race when every ounce of luck in needed.

After a heavy fall at Sandown, Liam suffered concussion and headaches for three months and in 2004 he was advised to retire, when only twenty-five. He retrained as a farrier and now has a successful business shoeing for miles round Cumbria.

Throughout Liam’s riding career, he earned accolades, from the Best Male Trainee at the British Racing School of 1995, a Lester for Conditional of the Year in 2001 and, after retirement, he won the IJF Progress Award in 2010 for his dedication in retraining as a farrier. This was ironically presented to him by his first boss, Ian Balding, at Cheltenham Racecourse, where he had once ridden winners.

Originally from Brigham, Liam has settled in a little hamlet near Carlisle called East Curthwaite with wife Gilli, the second eldest daughter of Jonjo O’Neill, and four daughters Ronnie, Nancy, Peggy and Trudy. Ernie, a nine-year-old dark brindle boxer, is Liam’s constant companion who goes to every yard whilst he shoes throughout weekdays.

Liam and wife Gilli, daughters (left to right) Nancy, Ronnie and Peggy - pre-Trudy!

Did you have a horsey childhood?

I was always brought up around ponies as my Pop had horses and traps when we were kids. He would pick up all his grandkids on a Sunday morning and take us all out on the trap with him and his family.

We used to mess about with ponies as we grew up, but it wasn’t until I wanted to be a jockey at the age of about ten that I showed a real interest. I started to help out at my Uncle John’s racing yard until I left school, working mornings before school, weekends and holidays.

How did you get into racing?

As I’d wanted to be a jockey for a few years, I went straight to the British Racing School in 1995. I then worked for Ian Balding for twelve months as a stable lad. That was a great grounding and I had the upmost respect for him and all the lads who worked there.

After that year, I started getting too heavy to ride on the Flat so I rang Jonjo to see if he had any work. He said there was a job for me as a stable lad and we would see how things go from there.

Who was your racing hero growing up?

It was definitely my uncles at an early stage. Then, at the age of twelve, I was given Jonjo’s and Richard Dunwoody’s autobiographies, which I must have read a dozen times. Jonjo was and still is a great mentor to me!

Which trainers did you work for and in what roles?

I was a stable lad at Ian Balding’s before joining Jonjo O’Neill’s when he was still at Penrith and then I moved down south with the yard, where I was a stable lad, jockey and a box driver over the years.

What was your favourite racecourse?

Carlisle – it was a local track so there was always a good welcome into the winner’s enclosure. It was also a lovely track to ride around.

Which was your favourite racehorse?

It would have to be a little horse called Globe Runner. He gave me my first couple of winners and was such a great character. He was only small but was like a coiled spring.

Which was the best horse you rode?

Intersky Falcon - we had some great days over here and in Ireland. Definitely the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden over a hurdle. He has been happily retired at home for a while now.

How did you get into farriery?

When I left school, I always wanted to be either a jockey or a farrier, so I feel very blessed to have fulfilled both. I love working with horses so, when I retired from riding, I spent a year at Jonjo’s working but always had it in my mind to train to become a farrier. In 2005-2006, I started my apprenticeship and qualified in 2010.

I did my four and a half years of apprenticeship with Robert Atkinson in a village called Road Head, near Brampton in North Cumbria.

How did JETS assist you in qualifying as a farrier?

They guided me in the right direction, weighing up all my options and were very generous at helping me with the funding side of retraining.

What was the best advice you were given?

Keep your feet on the ground and be nice to people on the way up as there’s a good chance you will meet them on the way down!

What is the best advice you can give?

Enjoy every moment as it’s such a short career as a jockey.

What is the best aspect to being a farrier?

Working for myself and travelling around Cumbria and the Lake District, and meeting people from all walks of life.

And the worst?!

Definitely the back ache!

What vehicle do you drive and what would you prefer to be driving?!

A Mercedes Vito van for work but for fun, I wish I had a 1920s Ford Model T.

What’s your favourite food?

Beans on toast with a little cheese sprinkled on top.

What’s your favourite drink?

Cold water on a hot day at work or a vodka and coke (when I’m not at work...)

What’s your favourite candy?

I have a really sweet tooth but I love Carrot Cake.

What are your hobbies?

Before the girls were born, it used to be walking the fells. But since the girls need a lot of assistance and I don’t really enjoy being a packhorse, I now enjoy tinkering around in the shed making things out of wood or metal.

Where’s your ideal holiday destination?

Camping in a nice quiet field in the Lakes.

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