How Shergar destroyed the Derby field at Epsom 40 years ago

THE late Walter Swinburn was always slightly embarrassed by his runaway Epsom Derby win in 1981 on the supreme Shergar – as BBC radio commentator Peter Bromley declared ‘you need a telescope to see the rest’.

This was the imperious Shergar winning the 1981 Epsom Derby under teenage jockey Walter Swinburn.
This was the imperious Shergar winning the 1981 Epsom Derby under teenage jockey Walter Swinburn.

An iconic victory, the then 19-year-old jockey with God-given talents captured the nation’s hearts with this record-breaking 10-length win, despite easing down, in Flat racing’s most revered race on this very day 40 years ago.

Tragically, Swinburn is no longer with us – he died in 2016 at the age of 55 without ever discovering the fate of the superstar horse who was kidnapped from the Aga Khan’s stud in Ireland on a foggy February 1983 night in a mystery still shrouded by intrigue.

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But the nerveless jockey with choirboy looks, who was riding in his first Derby and who would later struggle with serious injury and the daily battle to make the weight, is still revered.

This was Shergar and Walter Swinburn winning the Epsom Derby on this day 40 years ago.

There is one certainty ahead of this year’s wide-open Cazoo Derby – no winner will be as mesmerising as Shergar, who freewheeled down Tattenham Hill before cantering up the most famous, and undulating, home straight in Flat racing with poetic ease. They were so far clear that John Matthias, the rider of the Ian Balding-trained runner-up Glint Of Gold, thought he had won the ultimate race before spotting the laid back Swinburn and Shergar cantering back to the winner’s enclosure.

Swinburn spoke to The Yorkshire Post about this historic win in January, 2008 in a rare interview to mark the 25th anniversary of Shergar’s disappearance. “To me, it was like a fairytale. Nineteen and winning The Derby. It doesn’t normally happen like that,” he said.

“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 heard 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.”

Shergar and Walter Swinburn return to the Epsom winners' enclosure after their Derby win of 1981.

But the Shergar mystery remained intrinsic to his life. 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. The thoroughbred’s 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’, 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. 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.”

Periodic ‘finds’ unearthed nothing more than skeleton impostors; as any racing fan could attest, there was only one Shergar.

Today, 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. And Walter Swinburn continues to be revered. “He was always totally unfazed,” said Stoute in a heartfelt tribute at the time of the jockey’s death. “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.”