Tuesday 20 August 2019

Racing mourns Shergar jockey with 'best hands of any of them'

Walter Swinburn and Shergar are led into the winner’s enclosure by the Aga Khan after winning the 1981 Epsom Derby. Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Walter Swinburn and Shergar are led into the winner’s enclosure by the Aga Khan after winning the 1981 Epsom Derby. Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Marcus Armytage

Walter Swinburn, one of the greatest big-race jockeys of the modern era and rider of Shergar, died yesterday. He was 55 and had been suffering from epilepsy.

Michael Stoute, who handed him the ride on Shergar when he was only 19, described him as "one of the great talents, with the best hands of any of them". He added: "On the big days he was nerveless and he lived for those occasions. We had many very happy successful days. It's just so sad."

Frankie Dettori described his death as a "terrible loss". He said: "It's awful news. He was a friend, a guy I looked up to, someone I sat next to in the changing room. At 55 it's so young and my heart goes out to his family."

Swinburn, who was nicknamed 'The Choirboy' because of his youthful looks, was born to be a jockey. His father, Wally, was one of a select few jockeys to have ridden full-time in England, Ireland and France and was the first jockey in Ireland to win 100 in a season. In retirement he ran a successful breeding operation in Newmarket before handing it over to his other son, Michael.

Walter's first winner was Paddy's Luck at Kempton in July 1978; his rise was rapid, and within three years he had won the 1981 Derby by a record 10 lengths on Shergar. It was a measure of the trust Stoute had in him that he let the teenager on his best horse.

Shergar became a household name when he was stolen from the Aga Khan's Ballymany Stud in Newbridge on February 8, 1983, when his groom was held at gunpoint to help load him in a horsebox. A £2m ransom was demanded, later reduced to £40,000, but no money was ever handed over and Lloyds paid out £7m to the syndicate owning him that June. The horse was never found.

However, he was an outstanding and distinctive colt. Having won the Sandown Classic Trial by 10 lengths and the Chester Vase by 12, he went to Epsom the 10/11 favourite.

Swinburn missed the winning ride in the Irish Derby when Lester Piggott substituted for him but he was back on for his victory in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

"He found his own pace and lobbed along as the leaders went off at a million miles an hour," said Swinburn afterwards. "I just put my hands on his withers and let him travel at his own speed."

The margin of victory over Glint of Gold in the 1981 Derby was 10 lengths - but Swinburn spent much of the last furlong easing down. The runner-up's jockey, John Mathias, thought he had achieved his lifetime's ambition in winning the Derby until he looked up and saw Shergar on the horizon.

Swinburn went on to win two more Derbys, on Shahrastani in 1986, also for Stoute, and the Aga Khan, and Lammtarra for Saeed Bin Suroor in 1995. Among the host of big races he won was the Prix de l'Arc in 1981 on All Along and a Breeders' Cup on Pilsudski.

Though making the weight was a continual struggle, his career was effectively ended by a crashing fall in Hong Kong in 1996 when the horse he was riding galloped through a set of rails. Taken to hospital unconscious, he remained in a coma for four days.

In 2004 he resurfaced as a trainer, taking over from his father-in-law, Peter Harris, at Tring. Most top jockeys fail to make it as a trainer but Swinburn seemed to be bucking that trend, sending out 52 winners in 2010.

A year later when Harris announced he would be dispersing his string Swinburn took the advice of his accountant to quit, having saddled 260 winners in seven seasons. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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