Walter Swinburn, the brilliant former jockey and trainer, sadly passed away earlier this week. He was just 55 years of age.
It will surprise many to learn that the perennially fresh-faced Swinburn, nicknamed ‘The Choirboy’, was a gifted rugby player in his youth. Walter the Softy he certainly was not, but in his prime no other jockey knew more about getting a tune out of a highly-strung thoroughbred.
Born in Oxford and the son of Wally, who was Champion Flat Jockey in Ireland in both 1976 and 1977, Walter Swinburn found himself catapulted to fame after partnering Shergar in the 1981 Epsom Derby.
What impressed many was that he had managed to pinch a Group 1 winning ride off the wiley Lester Piggott. Usually, it would be the Longfellow artfully trousering such a success at the expense of one of his peers.
Shergar famously won by ten lengths, although Swinburn always felt that the margin of victory betrayed his own greenness in the saddle.
“I could hear the crowd on the rails shouting, ‘Come on Lester,’ and got a bit worried. I cracked him with my whip a couple of times because I thought he must be right behind me.”
Shergar only finished 4th in the St Leger and Swinburn believed this was down to him extending his mount too much in earlier races.
“I was only 19 and, through winning previous races by 10 to 12 lengths, it used to take a lot out of him. I think if Lester had been riding him at that time, he would have been winning by just three or four lengths and it might have kept him going that bit longer. But then people wouldn’t have been talking about him as much.”
The early 1980s quickly became high-times for Swinburn and his biggest victory came on-board Patrick Biancore’s All Along, in the 1983 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Swinburn received much praise for a patient hold-up ride that enabled the Targowice-sired 4-year-old to pounce from the rail and deny Sun Princess. It was a stylish performance from a still very-young jockey, in Europe’s biggest and most-coveted race.
Swinburn continued to amass top-class wins, but tragedy struck in 1996 at Sha-Tin (Hong Kong). He was Liffey River’s pilot in the Albert Plate and the horse somehow struck a railing as the race was getting underway. The horrific fall put him in a coma for 4 days and it would be months before Swinburn fully recovered. Most regard the incident as the beginning of the end for his career.
Various attempts at a comeback spluttered and Swinburn, who always wanted to dine like a rugby player rather than a jockey, finally hung-up his boots in 2000. He briefly shone as a pundit, but was not going to pass up the opportunity to become a trainer that his marriage to Alison Palmer suddenly afforded him. He trained more than 250 winners, belonging to the stable of her father (Peter Harris).
James Fanshawe was among the many who paid tribute to Swinburn, following his death.
“Obviously he won the Derby in 1981 at the age of 19 and won the Derby two more times, but he had the most sympathetic pair of hands as a rider. He was a real horseman and was good on the most difficult of horses.”
Walter Swinburn is survived by Alison as well as his two daughters Claudia and Millie.