16 April 2006

Walter Swinburn is out to defy odds and make the grade as a top trainer

Down the years spring has both promised and threatened much for Walter Swinburn. On Good Friday, watching his horses prepare for his second full season, you could believe that his new life may have some golden summers up ahead. But he has to break the rule that says top jockeys rarely make top trainers.

A quarter of a century ago, Shergar was burning up the Newmarket gallops in preparation for making his 19-year-old pilot one of the youngest Derby winners in history. Twenty years ago Shahrastani was soon to give Swinburn the second of his three Epsom triumphs. But his bulimic battle with the scales was already taking its toll. The ice-cool talents that made him the finest big-race rider of his era were beset by the constant demands of paring his one-time rugby player’s body into a jockey’s frame.

Ten years back that problem was compounded by a near-fatal crash in Hong Kong in February. By April simple recovery was the only ambition. Despite Breeders’ Cup heroics on Pilsudski that November, the mind and body were breaking. Although there were actually two more comeback efforts, the riding chapter was finally closed when a skeletal Walter dismounted at Kempton on April 22, 2000, from the aptly named Bogus Dreams. This week Swinburn’s feet were on the ground and the new dreams looked pretty real.

There are more than 100 horses under his care and on Friday there seemed to be at least twice as many owners. Peter Harris, Swinburn’s father-in-law and predecessor at Pendley Farm stables in Hertfordshire, long ago pioneered open-house, professionally-managed syndicates and on Friday beaming owners were pouring in from early morning. The operation has produced such horses as Middle Park winner Primo Valentino and the Cambridgeshire star Katy Nowaitee. At 70 Harris handed over to his assistant. It is Swinburn’s future. His past is now in harness.

But not in the saddle. His face actually looks leaner and harder than his racing days but his trunk has some power and width about it. He may still talk about “that lovely first 100 yards when you are sitting on one that gives you a feel and you say ‘yessss’,” but he is at pains to stress that he wants to be a watcher now. “This is a new skill for me to learn,” he said as horses wing along the mile Polytrack strip below us. “I am starting to get a handle of what is a really good piece of work and what isn’t.”

The reason that top Flat jockeys don’t make top trainers – Harry Wragg is the only man in history to have ridden and trained a Derby winner – is that they have already used up too much of life’s energy to be able to handle the wider hassles of running a stable. “By far the biggest challenge for him was whether he could handle staff,” said Harris whose quiet, country-doctor manner cannot always hide the brilliant millionaire businessman beneath.

“He had probably never employed anybody in his life except a driver. Suddenly he has 60 people under him. I think he has done very well. He discusses things and asks my advice but it is he who deals with everything.”

Swinburn himself raises his eyebrows and talks of “a baptism of fire” and tells of other trainers ragging him about not being able to unsaddle and walk away any more. “Of course it’s very different,” he said, “but hand on heart I don’t feel any frustration about wanting to ride them myself. I am enjoying the role that I have got and that has been a real, pleasant, blossoming surprise to me.”

For despite his family running a successful stud, the jockey Swinburn had always insisted he would never go near training. “If anyone suggested it I would have told them they were mad,” he said. “But when we came down here Allison, [his wife, Harris’ daughter and mother of their two delightful little girls], suggested that I might like to be involved in picking jockeys and somehow the seed was planted and it has grown and grown.”

Such statements delivered with Swinburn’s soft-spoken, self-deprecating charm might lead you to think that the former golden boy has landed in a comfort zone. But a hint of steely, intelligent purpose comes through as he outlines his ambitions. “This is a team thing,” he said. “I have two wonderful head men in Jimmy Miller and Chris Carter and we work very closely with the vets. We had 42 winners last season to prove we could keep the show on the road. Now we need to take it forward. We have horses from some of the big owners including Sheikh Mohammed. I have to deliver.”

There have been no big changes to the training regime bar a ‘warm down’ trot recently introduced at the end of exercise and some conditioning hill work at the start of the year. A first winner of the new Flat term on Thursday helped increase the buzz on Friday. So too did the presence of the tail-swishing filly Suzy Bliss who goes for Goodwood’s Lupe Stakes and a string of as yet unraced talent including the three-year-olds Desert Island Miss – “she floats over the ground” said Swinburn – and Titian Dancer whose big chesnut backside rocketed away from me up the gallop.

The man whose most treasured sporting achievement outside racing is having bowled out Gary Sobers in a charity match, reached for cricketing metaphors to describe the way ahead. “Michael Holding has a share in one of ours,” Swinburn said of ‘Whispering Death’ who is as fanatical about racing as he ever was of delivering thunderbolts from the wicket. “I said to him that last season I had needed to spend some time at the crease. Now we have to play the shots.”

That’s what Swinburn summers should be for.

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