Swinburn – a big-race magician

With three Derby successes to his name, not many people knew more about what it took for Epsom glory than Walter Swinburn, who has died at the age of 55.

Walter Swinburn aboard Pilsudski after victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf

Indeed, it was as an angelic-looking teenager, just a few months short of his 20th birthday, aboard a white-faced colt named Shergar, that he rocketed his way to fame and fortune.

Their 10-length victory margin is the longest in the race's history, although the mystery of his subsequent disappearance went on to make Shergar, who also won the King George at Ascot with Swinburn, rather better known.

Swinburn doubled up for the Aga Khan and trainer Sir Michael Stoute aboard Shahrastani in 1986, and put his experience to good use nine years later with the callow chestnut Lammtarra.

Born in Oxford on August 7, 1961, the son of former top Irish jockey Wally Swinburn, he was apprenticed to 'Frenchie' Nicholson and Reg Hollinshead and rode his first winner on Paddy's Luck at Kempton on July 12, 1978.

He finally retired from the saddle in 2000, aged 38, with his CV littered with big-race success from around the globe, many of them for Stoute.

But weight problems hounded him throughout, while in 1996 he diced with death in an horrific fall in Hong Kong which put him in intensive care for several weeks and kept him out of the saddle for six months.

The fact it was just six months is incredible, as he returned to ride a winner at Windsor in August.

All seemed fine after a triumphant return, highlighted by his richest ever win on Pilsudksi in the Breeders' Cup Turf in Canada.

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But then in March of 1997 he was fined #500 at Newmarket Magistrates Court and ordered to pay more than #600 in compensation after admitting assaulting a restaurant owner and damaging a glass door.

During the trial it emerged that he was suffering from an eating disorder which reduced his tolerance of alcohol and the following month he announced he was taking a break from race-riding.

Many cynics felt at the time that his "sabbatical" would turn into retirement.

But Swinburn underwent a gruelling health and fitness campaign and after his return to the saddle in Dubai in February 1998 he reestablished himself – as a freelance, without the help of a lucrative retainer.

He proved all the hard work was worthwhile over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend when he won the Italian Oaks on Zomaradah and landed a big-race TV double at Sandown.

Most pleasure came from a hard-fought win on Persian Punch in the Henry II Stakes at Sandown – he got down to 8st 8lb to take the ride yet showed tremendous strength in the finish to get his mount home in front.

He went on to land Group One wins on Exclusive in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot and Lavery in the Heinz 57 Phoenix Stakes at Leopardstown.

Quality rather than quantity was always Swinburn's aim and as a result he never approached the jockeys' championship, which is determined solely by the number of winners ridden.

Swinburn only once passed 100 successes in a season, when he rode 112 winners in 1990, although the 'Choirboy' was invariably among the leading money earners.

In 1995 he landed just 60 winners in Britain yet only two other jockeys won more prize-money.

A private and quiet individual away from the racecourse – John Francome described him as a "very sensitive person, both on and off a horse" – Swinburn was married to Alison Harris and took over the training licence from his father-in-law, Peter, in November 2004.

He sent out over 260 winners from his Hertfordshire base before handing in his licence at the end of October 2011, citing financial reasons.

He said at the time he hoped to return, but that never came about.

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