Riding sensation Walter Swinburn, who died this week, will always be associated with the ill-fated Epsom Derby winner Shergar. Tom Richmond reports.
BOY WONDER Walter Swinburn was always slightly embarrassed by his runaway Epsom Derby win in 1981 on the supreme Shergar – as the BBC radio commentator Peter Bromley declared ‘you need a telescope to see the rest’.
A life-defining win, the then 19-year-old with God-given talents captured the nation’s hearts with this record 10-length win, despite easing down, and his angelic, fresh-faced looks that earned the sobriquet ‘the choirboy’.
“To me, it was like a fairytale. Nineteen and winning The Derby. It doesn’t normally happen like that,” Swinburn told The Yorkshire Post in January 2008 in an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of the horse’s kidnapping.
“To be honest anyone could have ridden Shergar. As we came round Tattenham Corner, I had to pinch myself. We were going that well. But, at Epsom, it’s like riding through a tunnel of people.
“All I hear was people shouting ‘come on Lester’. I panicked. I thought Lester Piggott was catching me, hence why I gave Shergar one last slap and he took off. I didn’t need to. I always regretted it. I never had an easier winner.”
Inevitably, Swinburn’s association with Shergar has defined tributes to the 55-year-old who died on Monday – a distinguished riding career, despite well-documented battles with the scales and serious injury, never reached the same heights as a trainer.
But the Shergar mystery remained intrinsic, with the horse being kidnapped from Ballymany Stud in Ireland. The horse was never found and it is a puzzle that will probably never be solved.
On the night of February 8, 1983, a foggy evening, intruders broke into the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud in County Kildare and kidnapped the horse. It is generally accepted the IRA were the culprits, that his abductors were ill-equipped to control a thoroughbred stallion, and that he was killed shortly afterwards. But his remains have never been found.
Shergar’s racing career was guided by top trainer Sir Michael Stoute, who sent him out to win six of his eight races. Ironically both Shergar’s defeats came at Doncaster, where he closed his racing career with an inexplicable loss in the St Leger.
The champion colt was syndicated for stud duties and arrived at Ballymany with everything ahead of him before he became one of the more celebrated victims of ‘the Troubles’.
With the kidnappers apparently unaware the Aga Khan was no longer the sole owner of the horse, demands for payment of a massive ransom came to nothing – though there were bizarre twists. At one stage even then-ITV racing presenter Derek Thompson was sucked into the maelstrom of negotiations, whether true or hoax.
Thompson said: “I’m sure Shergar’s disappearance hit Walter hard. He never talked about it, he kept things bottled up.
“I knew he was ill, but not this bad. He’s gone far too soon.”
Periodic ‘finds’ have unearthed nothing more than skeleton impostors; as any racing fan could attest, there was only one Shergar.
Today’s Shergar’s name is invariably linked with that of another infamous absentee, Lord Lucan, than with the Derby. The racing world, however, has not forgotten. Nor, too, will it forget Walter Swinburn.
“He was always totally unfazed,” said the aforementioned Stoute in a heartfelt tribute. “I’d drive him to the races and he would sleep the whole way. He had a remarkable temperament. The big days turned him on. Of course there were many times when he drove me absolutely mad, but he just had this unique talent. He always had to work very hard on his weight. There was a vulnerability, but that maybe comes when you have as much talent as he did.”