Riding and training are worlds apart, as Walter Swinburn has discovered. At his prime in the saddle Group One winners came along like clockwork; names like Shergar, Lammtarra, Shahrastani, Pilsudski and Marwell only begin to scratch the top of the list. Now, with his hands on the reins of the operation founded by his father-in-law Peter Harris, the tempo is much slower, but decidedly none the worse for that.
Racing is one thing, life quite another, and Swinburn's infamously turbulent existence was steadied and his priorities turned around by marriage to Harris's daughter Alison and their family life together.
Swinburn, 46, took over the licence at Church Farm, near Tring in Hertfordshire, four years ago. Since then there have been no superstars, just a steady stream of winners and a deal of fun – Staying On and Pinpoint were placed at Royal Ascot – for the yard's mostly small-time or syndicate owners.
On Saturday Swinburn will step up to the Group One plate again in the Eclipse Stakes, which he won twice in succession in his former career, on Ezzoud and Halling, when he saddles Stotsfold in Sandown's 10-furlong showpiece. It will be only his fourth venture into elite company as a trainer; Barolo ran in two Gold Cups and Stotsfold in last month's Prince of Wales's Stakes.
It was the Royal Ascot run that convinced Swinburn that the five-year-old had earned his place at the top table. The horse finished strongly in sixth, only two lengths adrift of runner-up Phoenix Tower, who was in turn four lengths adrift of Duke Of Marmalade. "Take the winner out and we haven't a lot to find on the rest," he said. "He did very well from a poor draw. It was a most encouraging performance."
Stotsfold was Swinburn's first Group winner, in the Select Stakes at Goodwood in September, and has a particular place in hearts at Church Farm. He was bred by Harris's late wife, Caryl, who lost her battle with cancer in March.
The son of Barathea has always been well regarded. After three sighters in his first season, at three he promptly won four of his first five handicaps and ended the campaign 2st better than when he started.
Last term the progress continued, though he was restricted to four runs. "What he must have is fast ground," said Swinburn, "but because of the summer we had we never really were able to get a proper run at the opportunities we wanted to. He actually held an Eclipse entry last year too.
"In the end we eased off with him – right from the start we've taken the long-term view – and the plan was to take him to Dubai, but then he pulled muscles in his back and we ran out of time to get him there."
Stotsfold's seasonal debut, fifth behind Phoenix Tower in the Earl of Sefton Stakes, was judged satisfactory; his next run, a long last of five finishers in the Huxley Stakes at Chester, less so. "It always takes a couple of runs to get the freshness out of him, and he was keen enough at Newmarket. Chester was puzzling at the time, but we had the vet to him afterwards and he wasn't himself, which backed up how he ran."
The vet was in attendance again on Monday, after Stotsfold picked up a nail in his foot, and after an overnight poultice all was well yesterday after he cantered. "We had a scare when he wasn't going well behind," said Swinburn, "but Pat Manning, who rides him every day, picked up on it immediately and we found the problem. That's the beauty of a team of good staff.
"But I remember Sir Michael Stoute telling a group of owners one day that the challenge is not winning a race, but getting a horse on to the track to start with, and he's quite right."
Stotsfold, who will be ridden by his usual pilot, Adam Kirby, will be one of the outsiders on Saturday. "We know it's a tall enough order," added Swinburn, "but what he does do is take back-to-back racing and since Ascot he's been on good terms with himself. He's earned his chance."
* The Derby winner, New Approach, a late absentee from Sunday's Irish version, has been diagnosed with sore muscles in his backside, with box-rest prescribed. His trainer, Jim Bolger, expects a return to full fitness but the colt has been taken out of betting lists for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes this month.
ECLIPSE STAKES (Sandown, Saturday) Coral: 100-30 Mount Nelson, Phoenix Tower, 4-1 Multidimensional, 11-2 Pipedreamer, 7-1 Literato, 9-1 Maraahel, 10-1 Rob Roy, 12-1 Campanologist, 20-1 Stotsfold, 40-1 Hattan.