Walter Swinburn: The greatest hands in racing

Behind the glamour lurked the mundane and painful reality of a struggle with weight

With Walter Swinburn it was all about the hands. They were quick enough to make him an exceptional schoolboy scrumhalf for Rockwell College. But on the back of a horse they contained a magic that made him perhaps the outstanding big-race jockey of his generation.

The ability to transmit both calm and urgency through the reins is a mystery so unquantifiable that it generally gets referred to as just “hands.”

Swinburn was only 18 when Michael Stoute reckoned the kid who would become known as 'The Choirboy' because of his angelic young looks had the sort of hands worth gambling on. A year later they combined to win the Derby with a horse for the ages in Shergar.

Stoute still reckons Swinburn’s hands were incomparable and the man who is now a Knight of the realm has had everyone from Piggott to Eddery, Kinane, Fallon and Dettori ride major winners for him.

It was Swinburn’s double-edged sword that the physical capacity to hold his own on a rugby field meant a natural talent for bending racehorses to his will came with a heavy toll in maintaining a weight far below what nature intended.

If bulimia is the technical term, within racing the practise of eating and then vomiting food up again is known as ‘flipping.’ The psychological impact, and the everyday obsession with keeping ounces off, is all too familiar to jockeys: just as familiar is that such anxiety can turn many to alcohol.

Swinburn’s life looked impossibly glamorous through the 1980s and ‘90s. He won the Epsom Derby twice more after Shergar. There was an Arc win in 1983 on All Along and the Irish Derby twice on Shareef Dancer (1983) and Shahrastani in 1986.

But behind the glamour lurked a much more mundane and sometimes painful reality. The struggle to maintain weight meant his reaction to a fall in Hong Kong in 1996 that almost killed him was of relief.

“I was sighing with pleasure,” Swinburn later recounted. “The crash brought me liberty. For a while I didn’t have to worry about eating or my next ride.”

That he returned from such terrible injuries testified to the steel and substance which underpinned the wondrous talent which could so often make the job looks ridiculously easy. That he successfully did so was no surprise to anyone. When it mattered most, and when a cool head was most required, there was no one better.

It was the same cool head which in 2000 decided the struggle with his own body had become unequal and he retired from the saddle. He had long before made the link between fighting weight and alcohol and given up the latter. It was his good fortune that giving up the latter left him with no regrets.

A subsequent training career was never going to see Swinburn reach the same heights he had done as a jockey but he put over 250 winners through his hands before conceding it wasn’t economic to continue. Even when training, though, there was no one better to get the leg up on a horse.

“On a young horse I’m always wondering, ‘is this the one?’ Even as a jockey, I loved that,” he later recounted. “When you feel you might be riding a future Derby winner for the first time it’s the biggest buzz of all.”