‘An unforgettable impact on racing’
In his latest column for Sporting Life, Mike Cattermole pays his own tribute to Walter Swinburn and recalls the best of times.
WALTER SWINBURN – SUPREMELY GIFTED
Walter Swinburn's premature passing on Monday was profoundly sad.
He was widely recognised as one of the most supremely talented jockeys we've seen but that God-given gift came with a heavy burden and the words "troubled genius" might have been invented for him. Although a multi-talented sportsman, Walter wasn't physically cut out to be a Flat jockey and his struggle with weight, and the battle with bulimia, was well known.
So, for him to still possess such a superb big-race temperament against the background of those fundamental difficulties, was quite extraordinary.
As he was being driven down to ride the hot favourite Shergar in the 1981 Derby, as Sir Michael Stoute reminded us on At The Races, 19-year-old Walter spent most of the journey asleep in the back seat. He simply took the occasion in his stride as Shergar shook up the race with his own.
That ability to perform with such a cool head never left him and that, combined with tactical awareness and hands like silk, meant that Walter was always in control. Horses very rarely pulled with him. It looked so effortless.
Of those many heartfelt tributes that appeared this week, John Reid described it well when he said: "You can learn to ride, but there are some things that can't be learned and Walter was one of those guys who had that magic touch about him."
He wasn't the first jockey to have a struggle with alcohol when out of the saddle and would often take things a bit far on the party front, but he still managed to ride at the top level for two decades.
His devil-may-care effort on All Along in the 1983 Arc, when he snuck up the inside to get up and beat Sun Princess, still gives Willie Carson nightmares. Then, only a copybook Epsom ride on Shahrastani in the 1986 Derby prevented an ill-at-ease Dancing Brave from stealing the show.
In 1995, he conjured up a third Derby on the once-raced Lammtarra only to lose the ride a little later in the season to Frankie Dettori when Sheikh Mohammed lost patience with his time-keeping.
The following year, he almost failed to survive horrible injuries at Sha Tin when thrown into the running rail, so to come back and win the Breeders' Cup Turf on Pilsudski later that year for the Stoute team must have been very sweet indeed. He still had it but, as he admitted later, had almost had it with race riding.
I only really got to know Walter better after he became a part of the Channel 4 team on his retirement from the saddle. By then the demons were beginning to recede and he'd quit the booze. His was always now a gentle presence, laced with charm and a kind sense of humour. He was simply good fun, good company and the crew all loved him. A phone call with him would always end with the words: "God bless."
Playing golf with him was a revelation as he had an incredible shoulder turn which meant he propelled the ball miles!
He also eventually found happiness in his love life – and marriage – with Alison, the daughter of businessman and former trainer Peter Harris, and they had two beautiful children in Claudia and Milly, while sharing their stunning home with Alison's older kids.
Walter seemed a very happy man in those days, both at work as a trainer and at play, but it wasn't to last and a divorce and the ending of his training career in 2011 must have been very tough for him.
I often thought of him living in London, where his children would visit him, but wondered how he occupied his days and whether he was okay and happy.
Very sadly, I did hear from his father Wally that health problems had come back to haunt him and to lose his life at such a young age is tragic.
We will, however, always remember Walter's impact on our sport and his legacy is guaranteed. I would like to extend my sympathies to all of his lovely family and hope they know that their grief is widely shared. The Choirboy is at peace now.
JIM BEST IS FOUND GUILTY – AGAIN
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Only this time, his punishment has been reduced from 48 months to six months. That's a reduction of 87.5%.
That's a result. I wouldn't bother appealing if I were you, Jim.
I told you this rehearing was going to be hard to take seriously.
THE NEW ONE COULD TRY A NEW TRIP
It was great to see The New One win his third Stan James International Hurdle on Saturday and in such style, too.
On paper, giving 8lb and a three-and-a-half length beating to My Tent Or Yours is right there in Champion Hurdle class, assuming that My Tent, who chased home Annie Power last March, is still most of the horse he once was.
So what to do with The New One? Keep him at two miles in a year when the Champion Hurdle picture is rather murky to say the least (but that should change), try him over fences or maybe consider the World Hurdle?
I always felt that The New One's big chance of winning the Champion Hurdle was in Jezki's year (2014) when he lost so much ground after being badly hampered by the fatal fall to Our Conor at the third flight. He still recovered heroically to take third.
He has not been quite up to it since, running fifth and fourth in the past two runnings and maybe the more aggressive tactics used at the weekend made a difference.
However, The New One was a Neptune Novice Hurdle winner over two miles and five furlongs at the Festival in 2013 (beating the future Grand National winner Rule The World), finishing the race off strongly, too.
He has won an Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles but never raced at three. Rising nine, TNO is unlikely to be getting quicker and his legendary sire, King's Theatre, gets loads of good stayers. So why not seriously think about the World Hurdle? There is no hurry of course but it's just great that he has so many options.
One thing we do know is that The New One loves Cheltenham. Saturday's success was his sixth win from 11 starts there.
Of course, Ryan Hatch would have ridden him for the first time in public but for that nasty fall from Cogry on Friday. He has sustained some horrible injuries, including a fracture on both sides of his sternum. Let's hope he has a speedy recovery.
WILLIE MULLINS STEPPING IT UP
The early rounds were won by Gordon Elliott, but the fight is getting more even now as we move into deep winter.
With Djakadam and Douvan duly delivering on Sunday, Willie Mullins still remains the man to beat in Ireland this season, with or without the help of Gigginstown.
In fact, let's face it, the parting of the ways of the two superpowers has made the Irish jumps season all the more fascinating as a result. Maybe it needed it.
At Cork, Douvan did it with such ease, as he usually does, with only his blunder at the third last spoiling what would have been a near perfect return. He looks likely to swat aside anything that stands in his way over two miles. He will be just seven in a couple of weeks and, imagine this, his best days are likely to be ahead of him!
And well done to Djakadam at Punchestown. For me, this horse is under-appreciated. He is rising eight but is already a two-time Gold Cup runner-up and who knows whether he will get it right at the third time of asking? With the masterful Ruby Walsh on his back, you do have to seriously wonder.
DERBY COUNTY BACK ON TRACK
Steve McClaren has only been back at Derby for just over two months and what do you know, The Rams are back on track!
Hands up, I was one the many sceptics when the former England manager was welcomed back to the IPro Stadium after being sacked as recently as May, 2015. But you have to admit, it has worked…so far.
The 3-0 defeat of arch rivals Nottingham Forest on Sunday was pretty comprehensive and meant that since "The Mac" came back, The Rams have won seven, drawn one and lost just one of their nine games.
Whisper it, but they are up to fifth from 21st place. Yes, back in the play-off positions. But let's not get too carried away. It is still early days and now McClaren must carry on and complete the job that he had threatened to do two seasons ago. Fingers now firmly crossed.
Just a thought, Sunday's game was played on a beautiful green carpet. It's a hybrid pitch and such a far cry from the old days at the Baseball Ground, which was basically a brown mudbath at this time of the year with not a blade of grass in sight.
Nobody will forget the moment during one game when the groundsman had to come on and repaint the penalty spot!
ARSENAL/BAYERN, IT HAD TO BE!
So, the reward for winning their group sees The Gunners taking on the might of Bavaria yet again in the knockout stages of the Champions League. It had an air of inevitability about it, didn't it?
At least this time they will have the chance to finish off the tie at home and that has been a luxury denied them before.
There were easier ties, of course there were, but note that PSG who finished second in their group, have gone and bagged Barcelona.
Last year's 5-1 loss aside, Arsenal have done well at the Allianz Arena in recent years, drawing 1-1 and winning 2-0, and if they can get a result to bring back to The Emirates then who knows what might happen.
Let's just hope that Messrs Sanchez, Ozil and Cazorla are all fit and in form come next February/March.
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