Walter Swinburn looked up to where the Derby course rose ahead of us before disappearing out of sight to the right. “I always remember,” he said with relish, “Vincent O’Brien stating that the Derby was the greatest of all the tests of the thoroughbred and its rider. I will agree with that. I never tire of coming to this place.”
At 47, Swinburn is now six years into a highly promising new career as a trainer, but in his 23 years as a jockey he was renowned as one of the finest handlers of the unique horse shoe shaped roller-coaster of a course that is the mile and a half of the Epsom Derby track. Three times he conquered – with Shergar 1981, Shahrastani in ‘86 and Lammtarra in 1995. Three memories that still blazed as we walked round this spring.
“I know I was only 19 when I rode Shergar,” he said of that most brilliant but ill fated of Derby winners, “but even though he was hot favourite, I didn’t really feel any pressure. Michael Stoute had played an ace card at dinner during the York meeting three weeks before by telling everybody that I was lucky, I wouldn’t have any pressure because I would have lots of chances to win the Derby. It was old jocks like Joe Mercer who had never won the Derby who would feel the pressure because they had not much time left. I totally bought into that. In fact I was still asleep when the Stoute’s came to pick me up on Derby morning.”
The words are fluent and calm, but standing at the start deep in the dip towards Langley Vale with the course lifting steeply away from us and the Epsom grandstand looming like a great white ocean liner away to the left, the dramas of so many Derby days comes flooding back into the memory.
When the race named after the 12th Earl of Derby was first run 1780 it was over a straight mile ending up in today’s finishing straight, and it was not until 1784 that the distance was increased to it’s now traditional classic trip and set left-handed around the demanding contours of Epsom Downs. But that still means that for two full centuries three year old colts and jockeys have rocketed up this hill in search of fame and fortune on the other side. Of all the major, internationally renowned sporting events “The Derby”, not the “Epsom Derby” is by some margin the most historic.
Swinburn may make light of his task in the summer of 1981 but walking with him brought back quite how different this track is from any other racecourse on the planet. For a start no other climbs so steeply – 134 feet in five furlongs may not sound that much but on a racehorse at full gallop it sets you hard into the collar and a brisk walker using a mobile can find themselves embarrassingly short of breath.
But the key opening challenge from Epsom is that not only does the course rise sharply, it also snakes first to the right and then to the left. This means that horses drawn on the left (the low numbers) find themselves initially on the outside as the group climbs away to the right and then are in danger of being chopped off on the inside as the pack sweeps back to continue the now left turning climb. A horse drawn low must have the pace to hold his position. Shergar was in stall 6.
“There was never a problem,” recalls Walter, “he was such a wonderful neat little horse. He jumped out fast and I cruised up the hill behind the two leaders. Two weeks earlier Michael Stoute had taken me to see Harry Wragg (who won Derbies in 1928, 1930 and 1942) and he said ‘make the rail your friend.’ I remembered this, took my position and those two others were the only horses I ever saw.”
Swinburn had an equally smooth run up the hill from a very similar stalls position on Shahrastani in 1986, although settling just on the outside no further back than fifth. But nine years later with Lammtarra things were very different. “In the paddock,” says Swinburn, “the orders from Sheikh Mohammed and all the team were to have Lammtarra up in the first three. But I knew that he was likely to be far too green to cope with that. The only time he had run before he had been ten lengths behind at half way. Sure enough, at Epsom he got checked and chopped when the course changed direction up the hill and, forget the orders, I was able to take him back, fill his lungs up and hope to get going in the straight.”
We have reached the top of the hill which, despite its grassy prospects is just 12 miles from Hyde Park Corner. It is a point where on the Sunday prior to the 1976 Derby I watched the connections of the French challenger Vitiges look across and down the 6 furlong, 100 vertical feet toboggan run round which the racecourse was intent on taking them, and simply mutter “incroyable.” For Walter, whose jockey father Wally Swinburn was apprenticed in Newmarket and then became a top rider in Ireland the connections were always closer to home.
“He loved to tell us about his first ride in 1952,” says Walter. “He was on an outsider and the stable jockey Charlie Smirke followed him down the hill on the winner Tulyar and kept calling out to him, ‘sit still son, sit still son’ until he came past just behind the leaders and called over ‘just watch me split these ****ers.’“
For Swinburn senior the fears expressed by those cross channel visitors in 1976 and felt by so many jockeys, not to mention punters, as the horses jostle into Tattenham Corner came hideously alive in 1962 when his mount Romulus was part of a pile up which brought down a quarter of the field including the favourite Hethersett and left the fancied French colt Angers fatally injured. For Swinburn junior who rode in every Derby between Shergar and Lammtarra and whose style in the saddle had the easy, unmuscular flair of a Gower at the crease, it was usually a descent without dramas.
Especially the first time. “With Shergar,” says Walter, “I eased out as we came into the corner and he just took off with me. It meant I was in front all the way up the straight and those last three furlongs seemed the slowest I ever rode in my life. For I was close up against the crowd and all I could hear them shouting was “Come on Lester” which made me think he was about tackle me. A furlong out I even picked up my whip which is a bit embarrassing. People have said how nice it was for me to pat Shergar on the neck as we passed the line. But it was not gratitude, it was just relief.”
Five years later with Shahrastani, Walter made the hill work famously for him and infamously against hot favourite Dancing Brave who only just failed after being impossibly far behind off the turn. “Shahrastani was very straightforward” remembers his jockey. “We knew stamina was his forte so I attacked once we got in the straight. Dancing Brave had beaten me on a good sprinter called Green Desert in the Guineas and I couldn’t believe the speed with which he came past us. But if you look at the video you can see he doesn’t handle the hill very well at Epsom and Greville (Starkey, his much castigated pilot) just couldn’t get him going until too late.”
We are walking the straight now and appreciating the challenge to horse and rider as not so much that of the descent but of the camber rolling steeply down from right to left. This did not present problems to Shergar and Shahrastani who were both experienced horses and in the clear. But it certainly appeared so for the once raced Lammtarra who was way behind and on the rail as he and Walter came round Tattenham Corner and over the road which, incongruously, crosses the track at the three furlong pole.
“There were three different phases,” says Walter, “first I was just keeping him balanced and hoping I could get him to run on well as we came through and into the straight. Then two furlongs out I got some space and gave him a clout and he suddenly went into his bridle and took off with me. I have never had a sensation like it.”
The words are beginning to glow as great sportsmen’s do as they recall moments which are just fantasy for the rest of us. “Then there was the third feelng,” says Walter, savouring it on his tongue, “right inside the final furlong, he wasn’t just running on well and incredibly straight. I realised I was getting up. I won a length and a half. Of all my Derby experiences, that is the one I am most proud of.”
We have reached the winning post. A mile and a half, not to mention two centuries from where we started. It has been like walking around Wembley, Wimbledon or Wentworth with a former champion and in many ways rather more than that. For Swinburn has not just been part of a chain which has linked the likes of Archer, Donoghue, Piggott and Fallon, his whole being has been shaped and almost broken by the rigours of the Derby jockeys life.
His glittering, fifteen hundred winner career was punctuated and finally defeated by battles with his weight. The thought at the time was that Walter could have lasted longer if he had more of the iron discipline which kept the equally tall Lester Piggott going into his fifties. Maybe but the revelation that the fit, lean-cheeked figure in front of us is now, at 10 stone 12lbs a full two stone more than his riding days, gives an indication of quite how desperate the wasting was.
But there is no doubting it was worth it. As Walter Swinburn looks back across the place where he has tasted immortality and wonders aloud how he would advise his own jockey “if he were lucky enough” to have a runner, the relish of what he could once do with a thoroughbred around that roller coaster mile and a half seeps back. “Yes,” he repeats, “I can never tire of coming to this place.”