Walter Swinburn: Flat-race jockey who won every British and Irish classic

Obituary: Outstanding champion forever linked to 1981 Derby winner Shergar

Walter Swinburn (August 7th, 1961-December 12th, 2016 ) on Shergar, after winning the Derby at Epsom in 1981.  Photograph: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Walter Swinburn (August 7th, 1961-December 12th, 2016 ) on Shergar, after winning the Derby at Epsom in 1981. Photograph: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Walter Swinburn, who has died aged 55, was one of Europe’s outstanding flat-race jockeys over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. But he will forever be linked to the legendary 1981 Derby winner, Shergar. It is the subsequent theft and disappearance of the horse from the Aga Khan’s stud farm in Co Kildare in 1983 which continues to grip public interest but the Shergar story is rooted through a superb racing career in which Swinburn played a central role. A pair of wide-margin trial victories in the spring led to Shergar starting an odds-on favourite for the Epsom Derby.

Swinburn was just 19 and had never ridden in racing’s most prestigious classic before. However, the cool big-race temperament that was to characterise his subsequent career was advertised in style on racing’s biggest stage for the first time. Shergar won easily by 10 lengths. Suspension ruled Swinburn out of Shergar’s Irish Derby follow-up at the Curragh but the partnership resumed in Ascot’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes where Shergar again ran out an easy winner. Not surprisingly the jockey, born in Oxford, but who grew up in Ireland, and identified himself as Irish, described Shergar as not only the best horse he had ridden but the best ever.

The Prix de l’Arc

Swinburn rode many other champions afterwards, including two other Derby winners, Shahrastani (1986) and Lammtara (1995). He also won France’s greatest race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, on All Along in 1983, and twice landed the Irish Derby. Famed for a natural horsemanship, and an ability to make even the most headstrong animal relax, Swinburn was always in demand for the biggest races. His youthful appearance, allied to a well-spoken fluency in interviews, helped him become known as “The Choirboy”, but there was no stronger, more determined or stylish jockey riding in Britain in the final two decades of the last century.

Swinburn’s Irish roots were strong. His mother, Doreen, is from Co Offaly and his father, Wally snr, was Ireland’s champion jockey when riding for Dermot Weld. However, if he was bred for racing, Swinburn first made a sporting mark as highly-rated schoolboy scrum-half for Rockwell College in Co Tipperary. He left school at 15 and was soon in England where he made an immediate impression when apprenticed to the noted jockey-tutor, Reg Hollinshead. It was less than three years between Swinburn’s first winner – Paddy’s Luck at Kempton in 1978 – and Shergar’s Derby, a reflection of a notably precocious talent. If Newmarket trainer Michael Stoute was Swinburn’s principal supply of major winners for much of his career, his services were widely coveted, including in Ireland.

Swinburn rode Aidan O’Brien’s first Group 1 winner, Desert King, in the 1996 National Stakes. He also won the 1992 English Cesarewitch on Dermot Weld’s famous stayer, Vintage Crop. Bar the St Leger in both countries, he won every British and Irish classic at least once and enjoyed success around the world, including at the Breeders Cup in North America. Behind the glamour of such big race victories, however, lurked an incessant struggle with maintaining weight. If Swinburn’s natural talent could make race-riding look easy there was nothing simple about the regime required to allow him exploit it. The demands of keeping his weight low led to him becoming bulimic and he blamed the shame he felt for briefly abusing alcohol.

Swinburn memorably recalled feeling relief after a near-fatal fall in Hong Kong in 1996; the relief came from realising recuperation meant a respite from his struggle with the scales. The toughness underpinning all the flamboyant style was evident in how he recovered from those injuries to resume his riding career. But by the year 2000 he’d had enough of the struggle with weight and retired from the saddle.

Daughters

Swinburn briefly worked as a racing analyst for Channel 4 television and married Alison Harris in 2002. They had two daughters, Claudia and Millie. The ex-jockey began a career as a trainer in 2004 and saddled almost 270 winners before handing in his licence in 2011. He struggled with illness throughout much of the last decade and linked a diagnosis of epilepsy in 2004 to his fall in Hong Kong eight years earlier.

Always most comfortable on the back of a horse, long after retiring as a jockey Swinburn recalled a less than classic ride when taking his daughters for a ride in London’s Hyde Park. “They put me on the biggest, fattest horse, resembling Nellie the Elephant, and even produced some steps for me to climb on,” he told a journalist. “At one point the girl instructor told me off for holding the reins all wrong. But I swallowed my pride and said nothing, even when my younger daughter told her ‘Daddy won the Derby.” In fact he won it three times, proof of an exceptional talent that overcame much.

Swinburn is survived by Alison and their children, Claudia and Millie, parents, Wally and Doreen, and his brother, Michael.