Derby-winning jockey at the age of just 19. Dead at the age of just 55. Why did it all happen too soon in the life and career of Walter Swinburn?
But then again, he was always ahead of his time. Not for nothing did a judge as renowned as Sir Michael Stoute make the bold move of employing him as a raw teenager
Stoute recognised, as we all came to do, that in Swinburn, here was a rare talent. A jockey who exuded class and confidence. One of shrewd judgement, of exquisite timing and as Brough Scott’s eloquent tribute stressed in the Racing Post this week, one of supreme balance and flair and an uncanny awareness of the horse he had underneath him.
Of all the other, many, wholesome tributes bestowed on Swinburn in the wake of his tragic death, the one that struck me most came from Willie Carson, one of his contemporaries from the ultimate golden era of jockeys that also featured legendary names such as Piggott, Eddery, Cauthen and Mercer. “He was one of those lads who, when he sat on a horse, knew exactly what to do,” said Carson. A simplistic notion maybe, but simplicity is often the quality so overlooked when assessing the best of sportsmen. Whether they are in the saddle, on the football field, at the crease, on court, at the table, they make it look so easy while the rest of us are sending ourselves dizzy with analysis.
Of course, it doesn’t come much easier than Derby Day 1981 when the mighty, ill-fated Shergar careered to a record-breaking victory. But Swinburn’s subsequent Derby triumphs on Shahrastani 1986 and Lammtarra in 1995 required skills of a very different nature. Too little is made of the early move he made on Stoute’s colt to draw the sting out of Dancing Brave, or of the masterly way he guided such an inexperienced horse as Lammtarra around such a tricky track and then grabbed leader Tamure with a late and lethal pounce. He was replaced in the plate by Frankie Dettori for the 3yo’s victories later that season in the King George and the Arc, but it had been Swinburn’s discernment on the Downs that truly enabled the son of Nijinsky to stride into racing’s history books as one of the unbeaten greats. Indeed as one of only two horses, alongside Mill Reef, to complete the Derby/King George/Arc treble.
There is little doubt that Swinburn was one of the best jockeys never to be crowned champion. The list of major races that he won, both here and abroad, reads like a glossary of the racing calendar. Not even the horrendous fall he suffered in Hong Kong in 1996, which left him in a coma for four days, could prevent him bouncing back only months later and steering Pilsudski to success for his guv’nor Stoute at the Breeders’ Cup.
Swinburn carried his knack for astute understanding into the training ranks and also into the TV studio where, it is often forgotten, he enjoyed a successful stint as a Channel 4 pundit, sandwiched between the irresistible duo of John Francome and Jim McGrath. It never ceases to amaze me how many celebrated sportsmen and women are so painfully unable to transmit knowledge and insight of their chosen field, whether that be through ignorance or an inability to communicate coherently. But Swinburn was a natural, a delight to listen to and a shining example of how so-called TV experts should educate, entertain and inform their audience. The new team about to take over the helm of ITV’s racing coverage could do worse than dig out a few old tapes of Swinburn’s masterclasses.
As a trainer, Swinburn took over the Hertfordshire yard of his father-in-law, Peter Harris, in 2004. He never housed a top-class performer, but was respected by punters and racegoers as a handler well capable of preparing winners. So much so that it was a sizeable shock when he quit five years ago.
Detailed reasons behind that decision, like the reasons behind his death, might never be made public. Speculation would be disrespectful but, possibly, dark demons hovered that might have accelerated his decline. We know, for example, that he was afflicted by bulimia during his riding days and that he was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2004. However, no dark demon on Earth can take away the memories of the light Walter Robert John Swinburn shone on horse racing. The songs of The Choirboy will be played long after the rest of us have gone too.