Obituary: Major David Swannell

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The Independent Online
David Swannell, horseracing official, born 1919, Senior Handicapper Jockey Club 1973-83, married Pamela Pemberton (one son, one daughter), died 24 July 1992.

THE ENTIRE British racing industry, from betting-shop punter to senior steward, owes an enormous debt to David Swannell, the former Senior Handicapper to the Jockey Club.

Swannell centralised the handicapping of racehorses, a task which had previously been done individually with sweat, tears and inevitable variations. His former colleague George Hartigan said: 'David put handicapping on tape. Previously each of us made his own handicap and, of course, our opinions often differed. But he centralised it and put it into a bank or computer. It was a tremendous innovation, which has ensured far greater accuracy overall and has certainly eased the life of a handicapper.'

David Swannell was born in 1919, and educated at Rugby school. He was wounded while serving in the Far East during the war and on demobilisation he worked on the fringe of racing until 1953 when, after learning his job with the late Geoffrey Freer, he became a handicapper.

A promising career so nearly ended in early disaster. One day at Carlisle he was summoned before the Senior Steward, the late Duke of Roxburghe. This enormous, arrogant, notoriously rude man gave Swannell the most appalling dressing down for giving one of his horses too much weight in a handicap. Knowing full well that he was innocent of the charge, Swannell emerged pale, trembling and determined to resign immediately, until he was calmed down by the Senior Steward's secretary Brigadier Roscoe Harvey, who persuaded him to ignore the duke and continue doing his job - for which advice he was always grateful. Yesterday Brigadier Harvey said: 'David Swannell worked with me for many years. He was a bloody good handicapper and a very, very charming man.'

In addition to his handicapping work, Swannell was Clerk of the Course at Beverley and Secretary of the County Stand at York where he paid a major role in founding and running the racing museum. His enthusiasm for this project was so great that he became the inspiration of the National Horse Racing Museum at Newmarket. I'll never forget Swannell's pride when, as its first director, he saw this splendid museum opened by the Queen in 1983, the year of his retirement from handicapping.

From the end of the war Swannell had always privately rated the top classic horses particularly the Derby winners of each year so that he could match them against their forebears and successors. In his handicap of Derby winners, incidentally, the French colt Sea Bird II, the 1965 Epsom hero, still tops the list.

This hobby had significant results. It led to the founding of the Annual International Classifications. As Geoffrey Gibbs, his successor as Senior Steward, said: 'It would be a fitting tribute to David's services to racing to see the classifications become truly international, with the inclusion of the North American horses.'

(Photograph omitted)

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