Obituary: Walter Swinburn, jockey

Walter Robert John Swinburn, jockey. Born: 7 August, 1961, in Oxford. Died: 12 December, 2016, in London, aged 55.

Walter Swinburn pictured during a race meeting. Picture: Dave Rogers/Allsport

The life of Walter Swinburn that came to a premature end at the age of just 55 on Monday can be seen as almost a stereotype of the gifted sportsman who triumphs early but does not reach the heights again.

That would be too glib an analysis of Swinburn, however, as he had to battle epilepsy for the last dozen years of his life following a horrific riding accident in 1996.

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He did so with courage and candour, and one of the warmest tributes to him has come from Clare Pelham, chief executive of Epilepsy Society, who said: “Walter was a very loyal supporter. He shared his own experience of epilepsy in order to raise the profile of the condition and was passionate about raising money to support research into epilepsy.”

Many top jockeys never ride the winner of the Derby and perhaps the greatest of them all, Sir Gordon Richards, had to wait until he was nearly 50 before finally landing the Blue Riband in 1953. Yet Swinburn was still a teenager of 19 when he rode into legend aboard Shergar in the 1981 Derby.

The winning margin of ten lengths was and still is the biggest winning distance in the history of the great race. It could have been even further, because so superior was the odds-on favourite to the rest of the field that Swinburn won the race easing down.

Swinburn showed in that race that he was indeed “bred to the saddle”. He was born the son of Wally Swinburn, twice the Irish Flat champion jockey and the first man to ride 100 winners in a Flat season in Ireland.

Educated at Rockwell College in Co Tipperary, Swinburn was always destined to become a jockey and at the age of 16 he was apprenticed in England to the trainer Frenchie Nicholson and then Reg Hollinshead, both of whom were renowned for their training of jockeys as well as horses.

Swinburn rode his first winner, Paddy’s Luck, at Kempton in 1978, and was then snapped up by Michael Stoute, later Sir Michael, to become his stable jockey, giving Swinburn access to a conveyor belt of class horses, the greatest of which was Shergar. The jockey blamed himself for Shergar only finishing fourth in the 1981 St Leger, and was heartbroken when the colt was kidnapped from its stud in Ireland and killed, apparently by the IRA, after a botched extortion plot.

One of Swinburn’s finest performances was in the 1983 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on All Along, trained by Patrick-Louis Biancone.

He only gained the ride because Lester Piggott plumped for another horse, and in the race Swinburn went for an audacious move up the inside rail before switching out to beat Sun Princess by a length.

Known as The Choirboy because of his youthful looks, Swinburn’s second Derby victory came aboard Shahrastani in 1984. The race is often remembered for the fact that the great Dancing Brave did not win it, but Swinburn could only do what he did best and gave a very accomplished Epsom performance to gain another victory for Stoute and owner the Aga Khan. The pair then won the Irish Derby by eight lengths – “that ought to settle a few doubts,” said Swinburn afterwards.

The many tributes that have been paid to Swinburn emphasised the fact that he was a natural horseman, possessed of the “gentle” hands that so many great riders have.

Yet he also had a keen sense of race riding tactics and while he never won the jockeys’ championship, his big race mentality came to the fore in a 15-year period in which he won the Epsom Oaks, the 2,000 Guineas and three 1,000 Guineas, only the St Leger eluding him among the Classics.

Even in his early 20s, Swinburn was having to battle against the scales, and became bulimic as a way of trying to keep his weight below the maximum nine stone level for a jockey in the Classics.

By his own admission, by the time he won his third Derby aboard Lammtarra in 1995, alcohol had also become a crutch, but the greatest agony that he faced was not self-inflicted. At the Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong in 1996, he was thrown from his horse and catapulted into the railings, suffering severe head injuries and other fractures.

Swinburn was in a coma for four days and in intensive care for weeks, then went through months of recuperation and physiotherapy to get back into the saddle. Typically, he won on his comeback ride, before going on to win the Breeders Cup Turf in Canada aboard Pilsudski.

Interviewed by this correspondent after his return to racing, Swinburn confirmed that it was only the thought of getting back into the saddle that kept him going through the punishing physiotherapy.

The weight finally beat him, however, and Swinburn retired in 2000. Later he took to training and sent out more than 250 winners from the privately owned yard of Peter Harris, the multi-millionaire whose daughter Alison became Swinburn’s wife and 2001. They had two children, Claudia and Millie, who survive him.

Swinburn was diagnosed with epilepsy eight years after that horrific fall in Hong Kong and became a loyal supporter of the Epilepsy Society charity, helping to raise awareness of the illness and raise vital funds for research into the condition.

He once told a fundraising dinner: “The accident happened when the horse ran through the rails with me and hit a stanchion. It smashed everything on my left side and I was in a coma for a few days.

“I retired four years later due to my weight, met my wife and had a daughter, then one morning I had a seizure on the bathroom floor. It was a terrible shock. Epilepsy was mentioned but I could not get my head round it.

“I heard the name epilepsy and that was it. I did not want to accept that this was the result of something that had happened eight years ago.”

The key to understanding Swinburn came in an interview that majored on all the setbacks and problems he had suffered: “For what riding gave me, I would go through it all again,” he said, confirming what so many knew about him, that he was only truly happy in the saddle.