Ride of my life: Walter Swinburn

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  • Walter Swinburn recalls his ride on Shergar in the 1981 Derby

    Shergar was very uncomplicated, never made a fuss and had a wonderful temperament, although he did get loose once or twice when, walking along quietly, he would suddenly drop his shoulder, as if to test his rider.

    My first experience of riding Shergar was in a canter at home and I realized how strong he was. He’d definitely let you know that he wanted to get on with it. And yet he was quite the opposite in his faster work, when he would be extremely laid back.

    Eventhough it was 21 years ago when we won the Derby, I can remember every stride on him. He walked round the parade ring as if it were just another day at the office. He was so calm you might have even thought he’d been doped!

    Despite the noise and shouting as we passed the gypsies on the way to the start, he was still cool and calm, which was a great help to the 19-year-old on his back. I was more excited than nervous.

    I was drawn six from the inside. Shergar bounced out of the stalls and we only saw two other horses in the whole race. Riberetto and Silver Season led us by about 10 lengths as we sat in third.

    I followed them round and it was just like a piece of work. I dropped my hands on his withers after the start, and didn’t move or have to change my hands at all. I did nothing; it was as easy as that.

    Rounding Tattenham Corner, I took a pull and shortly after that he wanted to go on, so I let him. We hit the front at the top of the home straight and that was it.He quickened up and off he went. He had this short, very economical action and never wasted any time in the air. That was one of his strengths.

    I could hear the crowd rising to a crescendo one and a half furlongs out. I was getting excited at this stage, thinking to myself: ‘Am I going to win the Derby?’ The straight seemed to go on for ever, even though I was on by far the fastest horse.

    Lester Piggott was riding Shotgun and I could hear the crowd shout ‘Come on, Lester’, so I thought he was on my tail. But when I looked round, I did a double take because I couldn’t believe how far in front we were.

    I stood up in the irons and started to pull up. Shergar could have won by 20 lengths – as it is, the official 10 lengths still stands as a record winning distance for the Derby.

    I used to go with my family to visit him when he retired to Ballymany Stud in Ireland. He used to stand quietly among the bullocks, so anyone could catch him and pat him. But, sadly, he was only there for a year before he was kidnapped.

    Shergar remains my best memory in racing.

    Don’t miss this week’s Horse & Hound (29 August) where Jennie Loriston-Clarke talks about her ‘ride of a lifetime’ at the 1978 World Dressage Championships on Dutch Courage.

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