Walter Swinburn: The Choirboy who never missed a note

His early success on Shergar masked the depth of brilliance through his whole career, writes Colm Greaves.
Walter Swinburn: The Choirboy who never missed a note

Walter Swinburn, jockey who galloped into history with Shergar in 1981, while still just 19 years of age

Shergar had just won the first race of his three-year old career, the classic trial at Sandown Park.

Looking back now, ‘won’ is a lukewarm description of what the Michael Stoute-trained colt had just accomplished. He had properly destroyed a solid field by 10 lengths in the first true Epsom Derby predictor of the 1981 season.

The Guardian’s Racing Correspondent and fearless professional gambler, Richard Baerlein, had no doubt about what he had just witnessed and famously reminded his readers of their duty: “At 8/1 Shergar for the Derby, now is the time to bet like men.”

Ironically, the success of his testosterone-fuelled call to riches rested on the thin, slight shoulders of a 19-year-old kid known to all by the uniquely unmanly nickname. The Choirboy.

Walter ‘Choirboy’ Swinburn’s place in the annals of thoroughbred racing history is generally defined by Shergar’s subsequent Derby procession, but his too short life, which ended on Monday, at the painfully young age of 55, was laden with successes of much more craft and deeper complexity than that steering job at Epsom.

Born in 1961, the son of English-born, Wally Snr and Doreen Cash from Co Offaly, his father’s job as first jockey to Dermot Weld furnished him with the Irish farmyard childhood he always cherished, even if he never quite fully shed the soft tones of his Oxford birthplace.

As a student at Rockwell College in Tipperary he excelled as a rugby player, overcoming his relatively light frame and gentle exterior with an intense and unrelenting desire for victory, and is still remembered by his contemporaries as an ultra-competitive winner and an equally intolerant loser.

Given his parentage and childhood immersion in all things thoroughbred, his choice of profession surprised no one. He went straight from school to an apprenticeship with Reg Hollinshead in Staffordshire and then on to the legendary trainer and ‘jockey maker’ Frenchie Nicholson. Following an accelerated and successful apprenticeship, he soon graduated to the number one job at Michael Stoute’s Newmarket stable. The big time and still only 19. Stoute, like Nicholson, was always a man who could spot the ‘right stuff’ in a young jockey from early on, and he immediately took to young Walter and insisted to some initially reluctant owners that he would be riding all the best horses in his stable. Speaking this week Stoute fondly remembered his former protégé. “He was the most amazingly natural talent,” Stoute recalled. “He had the most beautiful hands you could ever see on a rider, and the other great thing about him was his temperament. The big days were what he lived for, and he produced the goods on them on so many occasions. He was unflappable and his positional sense was very, very good.”

Those ‘beautiful hands’ were the tools on which Swinburn built his success, as vital and necessary as a hurley to Christy Ring or a putter to Pádraig Harrington. They acted as a calming buffer between the uncertainties of race and rider and the turbulent anxiety of the horse, relaxing the animal, convincing it that fighting him was a bad idea and conserving energy that would be needed at the business end of the contest. This differentiator separated him from many of his peers and soon rocketed young Walter to global fame, wealth, and success.

His big race triumphs are associated with a litany of the great racehorses in the 1980s and 90s. Following Shergar’s (and Walter’s) breakthrough summer of 1981 the majors came thick and fast. Three English, two Irish Derbies. King George, Arc, Oaks, Guineas, July Cups, Breeders Cups. Sixty seven Group Ones in total on horses of the calibre of All Along, Green Desert, Hatoof, Indian Queen, Lammtarra, Pilsudski, Shareef Dancer, Shergar, Shadeed and Shahrastani, among others.

Although he will always be coupled with Shergar and Derby Day, the quality of his other 66 group one triumphs were almost all harder delivered and more desperately fought.

His masterpiece of patience and timing for instance when winning the 1983 Arc on All Along and again on Shahrastani in the English Derby in 1986. That race is still remembered as the one Greville Starkey threw away by giving Dancing Brave far too much to do up the straight, but in reality it was won by a Piggottesque display by Swinburn.

Three off the rails in fifth round Tattenham Corner, balanced at the three pole, get first run on your biggest rival and make your own luck. He was to win the Derby once more in 1995 on Lammtarra, but lost the ride soon after when Sheikh Muhammed finally ran out of patience with his inability to show up on time. The lucky recipient of the spare ride was a young Franke Dettori who this week described Walter as “‘the most naturally talented jockey of his generation.”

Standing at 5ft 7 inches, abnormally tall for a flat rider, like many flat race jockeys Walter Swinburn led a famished life of self-denial. He was constantly starving himself to ride at weights that were defined for the human body as it was 200 years earlier and the severity of the discipline often became unsustainable.

His weight problems got worse after when he suffered a catastrophic injury at the start of a race in Hong Kong in 1996 resulting in a four-day coma and a six-month rehabilitation.

He returned heavier than ever, tried to solve the problem by vomiting meals but only developed an eating disorder which he considered a shameful condition and used more and more alcohol to deaden the pain. Few party invitations went unaccepted.

By 2000 he had had enough and sounded the bell on his riding career, a retirement he later admitted came almost as relief to him. He subsequently combined a relatively successful training career with some high-grade TV punditry but his true sparkly days were behind him.

The sparkliest of them all of course was the first one, the one with Shergar. On his way to the course that day he was picked up by his father and prepared for the race by sleeping most of the way there.

When he woke up on arrival he casually told his old man that “he had to go now and win the Derby”.

Michael Stoute cleverly relaxed him even more by telling him that it was only the Derby and there would be plenty more for him if he screwed it up and he was happy to believe this.

He did not screw it up. He had Shergar perfectly placed and brilliantly balanced throughout and when he pressed the ‘go’ button they both galloped into history. He took the plaudits, shook all the hands and then slept again through the journey home.

A choirboy had landed the most famous bet for men. He never missed a note.

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