Of all the distinctions accumulated by Walter Swinburn during his decades in horse racing, the greatest might be that he took a Derby-winning ride from Lester Piggott, who was famously good at pinching fancied mounts from other jockeys. Swinburn, who has died aged 55 of so far unannounced causes, became Shergar’s jockey in 1981 after Piggott had ridden the colt the previous year, in time to steer him to a record-breaking 10-length Derby success.
Swinburn was just 19 at the time and it was a major statement of faith in his ability for Michael Stoute to appoint him as stable jockey and to insist on his riding all the best horses at the trainer’s Newmarket yard. But the young man was born to be a jockey, showing natural ability from the outset as well as a notably cool head on the big occasions.
Even so, Stoute felt the need to take some pressure off his teenage employee during the build-up to Epsom, telling him he had his whole career to win a Derby and that the men who should be worrying were the older riders for whom time was running out. “I bought into that completely,” Swinburn said, having eventually recognised the words as mere flannel, “and went into it thinking there was always next year.”
So it was that the jockey, having his first ride in the Classic aboard a red-hot, odds-on favourite, was so relaxed that he slept as his father drove him to the Surrey racecourse. Legend has it that he emerged on arrival, stretched, said: “I’d better go and win a Derby, then,” did so and slept once more on the way home.
In fact, there was at least one anxious moment in the race, albeit an unnecessary one, and it related to Piggott, who had worked his way on to the second-favourite, Shotgun. Swinburn recalled that, as Shergar took the lead: “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.” However, there was nothing but air right behind Shergar. Trainers being trainers, Stoute told Swinburn off for turning his head.
Despite such extraordinary early success, there was plenty of humility in Swinburn, who blamed himself for Shergar’s fourth place in the St Leger three months after Epsom. “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.”
Born in Oxford to Wally Swinburn, a dual champion jockey in Ireland in the 1970s, and Doreen (nee Cash), who helped to run the family farm at Rathangan, Co Kildare, Walter was raised in Ireland and educated at Rockwell college at Cashel, Co Tipperary. While racing always seemed his likely future, the competitive spark also helped him to show early ability on the rugby field.
Sent to England at the age of 16, he was apprenticed to Frenchie Nicholson and then Reg Hollinshead, both trainers noted for their ability to nurture riding talent, Pat Eddery and Greville Starkey having previously taken the same route to the top. His first success came on Paddy’s Luck at Kempton in July 1978.
He rocketed to fame in the early 80s, winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Shergar (1981), the Irish Derby on Shareef Dancer and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on All Along (both 1983). In the French contest, he delivered a ride of exceptional maturity and self-confidence, settling his mount at the back of a strongly run race before making his run against the far rail, threading between tired rivals.
Known as “the Choirboy” for the boyish good looks that he never quite lost, Swinburn was renowned for his almost magical ability to settle a horse in the early stages of a race – “the best hands in racing”.
His life might have been free of significant troubles if he had also been granted ready control of his weight, but that gift was denied him. By the mid-80s he was secretly throwing up immediately after meals. It seemed a necessary but shameful habit to him and he blamed it for leading to another self-harming crutch – alcohol.
While his weight struggles limited the number of rides he could take, they seemed to detract nothing from his ability. He felt most comfortable on horseback, he said, and showed it with continued success in major races aboard the likes of Shadeed, Shahrastani, Lammtarra and Pilsudski, the glory days including two more Derbys (1986 and 1995) and a Breeders’ Cup Turf (1996, at Woodbine, Toronto).
A shocking fall at the start of a race in Hong Kong in 1996 marked the beginning of the end for his career. In a coma for four days and out of action for months, Swinburn relished the brief chance to eat normally. He made three comebacks of various lengths but finally called it a day in 2000, with no immediate thought of what would come next.
He proved versatile in retirement, charming and informing viewers of with his analysis. In 2002 he married Alison Palmer, and he trained more than 250 winners from a stable owned by her father, Peter Harris.
But, like many a high-profile sportsman before him, Swinburn found the thrills of his first job almost impossible to replace.
He told one interviewer: “For me, with all those issues, riding became an entirely selfish existence. I was cut off from other people’s feelings. I couldn’t have a relationship with myself, let alone anyone else. But, you know, for what riding gave me, I would go through it all again.”
He is survived by Alison and two daughters, Claudia and Millie.
• Walter Robert John Swinburn, jockey and trainer, born 7 August 1961; died 12 December 2016