Chris Wood, Wednesday 13 April 2011
The history of the Epsom Derby is strewn with fascinating stories: epoch defining moments, courageous rides from the great jockeys and, above all, the victories of the legendary thoroughbred horses themselves.
And in looking back over more than 230 great Derby Days there have been few, if any, more memorable winners than the great Shergar, the Irish-bred bay colt who won the 1981 race by ten lengths – a record distance in the last century for Britain’s biggest flat race.
The talented jockey privileged to be aboard Shergar that day was a 19 year old prodigy, Walter Swinburn, who had only been appointed stable jockey to the high profile Newmarket stable of Michael Stoute shortly before the race. That victory – and other memorable wins Shergar had that year – made Walter one of the most sought-after jockeys in the world. He went on to ride 1,391 winners in Britain over his riding career, including three Derby triumphs, one Oaks victory and one Coronation Cup win – the latter five all at Epsom, which Walter understandably says ‘feels like home.’
This year, to mark the 30th anniversary of Shergar’s epic win, Epsom Racecourse and sponsors Investec have invited Walter back as their Guest of Honour. It’s something he feels is an apt tribute to the horse.
‘It’s a great honour to be invited back as Guest of Honour. To win the Derby had always been my ambition. My father was a jockey before me and I grew up wanting to achieve that. The Derby is the pinnacle – the greatest test of a thoroughbred.
Shergar’s achievements in that year alone – the Derby, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Chester Vase, Sandown Classic Trial and the Irish Derby – put him in a category of his own. So why did he achieve so much, as a three year old?
‘Shergar simply had no weaknesses, Walter says. ‘Horses need temperament, speed and stamina at Epsom and if they don’t have all three they will be found out. Some horses, for example, lose the race on their way to the starting line. Then there’s the big climb up the hill, followed by the fast pace around Tattenham Corner. Yet when I rode Shergar I was just a passenger; I couldn’t have stopped him; that’s how superior he was.
Walter’s recollection of his second Derby win, riding Shahrastani, was a very different affair. ‘Shahrastani lacked speed,’ he reveals, somewhat surprisingly. ‘It was his stamina that saw him hold off a strong challenge from the fast finishing Dancing Brave.’ The modest Swinburn omits any suggestion that his own horsemanship had anything to do with the victory.
Walter Swinburn’s legendary superb handling skills also saw him push his third Derby winner, Lammtarra, from way back off the pace into a surging run inside the last five furlongs to score by a length.
But it was Shergar who was destined to remain in the public’s hearts, largely through a tragic and cruel intervention. The racing legend had been retired to Ireland and a new life as a breeding stallion, when in 1983, he was kidnapped by a splinter group of the IRA, in the hope that they could demand a huge ransom from owner the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader to 15 million Ismali Muslims. However, they had failed to do their homework. They didn’t know that the Aga Khan had syndicated Shergar for £10 million – 40 shares worth a quarter of a million each. Agreement from the whole syndicate to pay a ransom would have been virtually impossible.
The kidnappers panicked and, according to an investigation by Daily Telegraph reporter Andrew Alderson, proceeded to machine gun the hapless Shergar to a brutal and painful death. The remains have never been found but are believed to be hidden in the deep bogs around Ballinamore, in County Leitrim.
Does Walter look back on Shergar’s sad end with sorrow?
‘Not at all. Never let the ending spoil a great story. Shergar changed a lot of people’s lives. The IRA’s plan completely backfired, though. Ireland is a nation of horse lovers and everyone loved Shergar.’ Clearly, many in the republic, including Republican sympathisers, would never have forgiven the IRA for butchering the equine pride of the nation in cold blood, so the killers covered up their actions.
The Shergar-Swinburn partnership seems destined to go down in Derby history as unique and never to be repeated. Walter Swinburn finally hung up his boots in 2000 and turned to training, breeding and television punditry. He took over the license at Peter Harris’ Hertfordshire yard and has continued to enjoy considerable success. Along with his brother and father, he also owns the Genesis Green Stud at Newmarket, where his family bred the 1998 French 2,000 Guineas winner, Victory Note.
So, trainer or jockey; which side of horse racing does Walter prefer, I wondered. ‘Well, at least as a trainer I can eat more,’ he says. ‘I always struggled with my weight. But I don’t get to work with as many horses.
Did I detect a hint of melancholy in those words; a longing, perhaps, for just one more day in the sun with his irreplaceable partner, Shergar?
The Investec Derby, the UK’s richest horse race, is worth £1.25 million in prize money. From ‘tops ‘n’ tails’ in the Queen’s Stand, to the free-to-all carnival scene spanning the hill, the day offers an attraction for everyone and a place to see and be seen. Derby Day attracts a crowd of 100,000, all hoping to see history being made as the winner is crowned.
Tickets for the Investec Derby Festival are now on sale. To buy tickets call 0844 848 0197 or visit www.epsomdowns.co.uk