Racing: Swan reserved for the Champion role

Cheltenham glory beckons for Ireland's top rider.
Click to follow
NO JOCKEY at the Cheltenham Festival next week will be carried out on to the racecourse by a greater wave of public support than Charlie Swan. Yet an odd fact is that while his most potent weighing-room rivals in Richard Dunwoody, Tony McCoy and Adrian Maguire are Irishmen based in England, the eight-times champion jockey from over the water has nothing but British blood swirling through his veins.

Charlie Swan's father is Scottish and his mother English, but any notion that the jockey is anything but a son of the shamrock himself is met with great bafflement. "I was born here so I've always felt Irish," he says. Indeed, Swan has never felt it necessary to move more than a few hundred metres from his Co Tipperary birthplace of Cloughjordan.

That is not to say, however, that his ancestors have not played a part in moulding him. When it comes to post-match chit-chat in the unsaddling enclosure there are few who can match Charlie's expertise. He can soothe the saddest of owners' hearts with a kind appreciation of a horse's performance.

This may be a skill passed down by his great-great-great-great-great grandfather. Surgeon Swan was Bonnie Prince Charlie's physician when the Prince's army was scattered by Butcher Cumberland at Culloden Moor. As the surgeon was on the point of execution, he suggested the cold steel would be better employed repairing English generals injured in the conflict. He volunteered and survived.

His descendant has survived long enough on another field of strife to become the most successful jumps jockey Ireland has ever known. Charles Francis Thomas Swan has ridden more winners in his homeland than anyone else, and also holds the record for both most winners in a season and the most in a calendar year. He has twice been leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, where he has partnered 11 winners. Aidan O'Brien, his main employer, calls him "the best jumps jockey in the world".

Yet Swan himself is most unenthusiastic about his own skills. "If anything at all stands out in my riding it's the ability to judge pace," he says. "I suppose you have to have a small bit of talent to do what I've done, but it's more important to be in the right place at the right time. It's better to be born lucky than talented.

"There are several other jockeys who are just as good as I am, but they haven't had the breaks that I have. I look at some of them in the jockeys' room. If circumstances had been different, one of them would have ridden into the record books in my place."

It may have been hard, however, to convince Swan he was on the yellow brick road during his early days as an apprentice, when he used to lift muck sacks so heavy he had to have them loaded on to his shoulders by someone else. When he arrived at Kevin Prendergast's yard, there was one particular fellow apprentice who did not exactly afford him a pot of tea and scones welcoming party. Swan and Kieren Fallon have, though, left their juvenile hostility a long way behind.

Charlie too soon made distant history of those chimney-sweep days and by 1987 he had his first ride at the Festival on Irish Dream, trained by his father, Donald. The tyro broke his left arm in that venture, and the long surgical scars on his arms reveal how vulnerable those limbs have been ever since.

Three years later, Swan had his first Cheltenham win with Trapper John in the Stayers' Hurdle and another three years after that he won the Ritz Club Trophy as the meeting's leading rider. A second Ritz in 1994 included the celebrated Coral Cup victory of Time For A Run, whose trainer, Edward O'Grady, told Swan to go out and ride with balls of steel. By that our jockey understood he was not to take out some ball bearings in a pocket. O'Grady's memento of a board covered in green baize and embedded with two steel balls is among the trophies in Swan's lounge.

By that time, C F Swan had become the Blondin of the turf and was balancing his commitments so delicately that he rode just about every decent horse in Ireland. In a perverse way this helped the careers of young men like McCoy and Paul Carberry, who were forced to desert Ireland in search of more bountiful opportunities elsewhere.

Yet throughout his persistent hegemony there has always been the grandstand gossip that Charlie Swan was nowhere near as effective over fences as he was over hurdles. Charlie, as you might imagine, disputes this. "I used to do a lot of showjumping and cross-country before I was on the Flat and maybe I forgot that and it took me a while to get back into the swing of things over jumps," he says, "but that was a long time ago.

"People can say what they like, and even though I've only ridden four winners over fences in England, they have been two Whitbread Gold Cups, a Greenalls Gold Cup and a Champion Chase."

This will be the first Festival of Swan's third decade and there are signs that he no longer has the appetite to chase down every single ride, even at the greatest meeting of them all. He most wants to win the big races, especially Istabraq's Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. "I've got some nice rides but I don't have the ammunition this year that I've had in the past," he says. "I used to ride in nearly every race over there but this year I don't have as many rides.

"I didn't particularly want to take a ride in the Arkle because that's the race before Istabraq and you don't often get the chance to ride a favourite in the Champion Hurdle, so you like to take as much risk out of the lead-up as possible."

When you telephone Charlie Swan, especially around Festival time, you get used to the engaged signal. When connection is made, however, he treats your call though with a fresh significance that suggests it's Alexander Graham Bell on the other end. Despite the sort of success which has stained others, little has changed about Charlie, the quiet little boy who used to have a stammer. Even modern dentistry techniques have managed to maintain a set of choppers that were designed with apple-bobbing more in mind than National Hunt racing.

Charlie will be a reassuring figure at Prestbury Park this week, a man who appreciates what the fates have given him and continues to do so. "There's that bit more pressure beforehand at this meeting but once you're out there on the horse it's just down to whether you're good enough," he says.

"It's a nice rivalry at the Festival on the track and in the stands. When you look at all the trouble north of the border, it's good to see everyone so relaxed at Cheltenham, where the Irish and English thing is so good-natured. Cheltenham will always be the meeting for me. I just love it."