• At the age of 19, Swinburn rode Shergar to 10-length Epsom win
• It’s absolutely shocking he should die aged 55, says John Francome
Walter Swinburn, who rode Shergar to a record-breaking 10-length success in the Derby in 1981 when he was just 19 years old, has died at the age of 55.
Swinburn was recognised as one of the finest and most stylish jockeys of his generation, and rode with a confidence born of a rich natural talent. He rode his first winner – Paddy’s Luck – at Kempton Park in July 1978, and secured his place in turf history less than three years later aboard Sir Michael Stoute’s Shergar.
Stoute might easily have looked for a replacement for Swinburn at Epsom due to his relative inexperience: Shergar was the jockey’s first ride in the Classic. But he kept faith with the fresh-faced teenager, widely known by the nickname of “the Choirboy”, following an emphatic success for horse and rider in the Chester Vase.
Shergar dismissed his field with similar ease at Epsom, turning for home around Tattenham Corner with a clear lead and drawing further away from his pursuers for much of the straight until Swinburn started to ease him down approaching the line. The jockey was suspended for the Irish Derby, when Lester Piggott replaced him in the saddle and recorded another impressive success, but Swinburn was back aboard when the brilliant three-year-old followed up in the King George & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.
Swinburn was on the best horse by far in the 1981 Derby, but almost certainly on the second-best runner in the Classic five years later when his well-judged ride on Shahrastani denied the fast-finishing Dancing Brave, who had turned for home with many lengths to make up. He rode the third and final Derby winner of his career aboard Lammtarra in 1995, dedicating the success to the memory of Alex Scott, the colt’s first trainer, who had been murdered nine months earlier.
Swinburn was beaten aboard Shergar in the 1981 St Leger, after which the colt was retired to stud, but won all four of Britain’s other Classic events at least once. He was also successful in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1983 aboard All Along, and in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Turf on Stoute’s Pilsudski.
Swinburn struggled with his weight from an early stage of his riding career, and suffered life-threatening injuries when he was thrown into a running rail at Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong in 1996. He was in a coma for four days afterwards, and his injuries included a punctured lung.
He retired from race-riding in 2000 because of weight issues and embarked on a new career as a trainer, saddling horses mainly for his father-in-law, Peter Harris. He saddled more than 250 winners, including Julienas in the Royal Hunt Cup at Royal Ascot in 2011, but decided to relinquish his licence later the same year having been advised that his training operation “was not viable at the moment”.
Swinburn also worked as a pundit on the Channel 4 Racing team, and wrote a newspaper column. “I spoke to him a couple of months ago and he seemed in really good form,” John Francome, who worked with Swinburn on Channel 4, said on Monday evening. “It’s absolutely shocking he should die aged 55. No age at all. He was an absolutely gifted rider, you never saw any horse pulling with him or having their head in the air. He was a little bit of a troubled soul in some ways, he had weight problems which probably affected him a lot more than other people, but that said that seemed to be a long time ago and he seemed to all intents and purposes fine, but obviously he wasn’t. He could ride a race, he had a really good feel for what was going on underneath him. He must have been a fantastic jockey to have riding for you.”
James Fanshawe, the Newmarket trainer who was an assistant to Stoute while Swinburn was the stable jockey, said on Monday that he had been a “brilliant” jockey, and that his successful association with the headstrong miler Zilzal highlighted Swinburn’s sympathy for his mounts. “Not many people could have ridden Zilzal,” Fanshawe said. “He was a brilliant horse, but had a fiery nature. Walter was brilliant on those sort of horses. His big-race record would stand comparison to anyone.”
Courtesy : The Guardian