Swinburn revels in the occasion

PRIX DE L'ARC DE TRIOMPHE: The panic-stricken cavalry charge of Europe's biggest race is made for Britain's calmest rider: Balanchine's challenge rests in cool hands, says Richard Edmondson
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As he sits at his cottage home in the Suffolk village of Wickhambrook, Walter Swinburn could be the chap at the console on Tracey Island waiting to unleash the Thunderbirds into action. He knows the phone is going to go, requesting a big job to be performed, with skill but without nerves.

At 34 (an age deduced from the calendar rather than his face), Swinburn has now enjoyed the reputation as the most dispassionate of riders in furnace-hot arenas for close on a decade and a half.

It all started when, as a 19-year-old, he was asked to ride Shergar, both an outstanding racehorse and (as others were to recognise and act on later) a potential breeding machine of some value. On the eve of the Derby, and at an age when Thunderbirds episodes would still have been fresh in his mind, Swinburn should have been a prisoner of expectation, unable to keep his head on the pillow. It was not quite like that.

"I overslept that Derby morning," he remembered. "I got woken up by my landlady saying there was Michael Stoute [Shergar's trainer] and his wife and the four or five people who were going with us waiting outside." By the afternoon the fug had cleared sufficiently for Swinburn to win by 10 lengths. A star, a sorry tale and an enduring success story had been born.

Many years on and with poor Shergar reduced to bones, Swinburn is still doing it. On Thursday he won yet another Group One race, the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket on Royal Applause, while tomorrow he rides Balanchine, one of the favourites, in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The interim, though, has not always been unconfined joy. In the rumour sauna that is Newmarket, Walter Robert John Swinburn's name has always been like flypaper to some of the less flattering notions floating around. Swinburn himself admits he has a capacity for enjoyment once his card has been punched for the day, but has become increasingly distant from the press since suggestions that they are targeting him have surfaced. If a label (rather than a tabloid's lasso) is to be placed around his neck, he would prefer it to be the one about his championship-race expertise, even though it is not a blandishment he much believes.

"I don't think of myself as a big-race specialist, it's other people who say that, and I'm fortunate that I get given good horses and, I hope, I get the job done," he said. "But it's not a title I'm trying to get rid of.

"I do really enjoy the big occasion and doing your homework on the race, but after that it's just get out there and do your best while enjoying it."

It is this most insouciant attitude to matters in hand that perhaps sets Swinburn apart. When he comes charging down the steps at Longchamp tomorrow afternoon (inevitably the last in line and sprinting towards connections) there will be no fluctuation in his demeanour. Others will have shown their nerves already. "You can tell it's different when it's Derby day or Arc day," he said. "The quiet ones tend to make a bit more noise and the normally noisy ones go a bit quiet."

Swinburn's sole winning Arc, in 1983 on All Along, was typical of his unflappability as he charted his horse through Longchamp's hurricane eye of the inside rail. "We took a chance because she was drawn very badly," he recounted.

"I took her out and crossed the field from the back to get her on the rails. Patrick [Biancone, the trainer] told me to stay on the rail and see if I got the chance. That's what we did and she got the split and came through to win in the last 100 yards. There was no pressure because I was told that if she got stopped it wouldn't be my fault. I learned a hell of a lot."

All Along, like Swinburn, carried on winning leading prizes, capturing a $1m (pounds 650,000) bonus for collecting the Rothmans International, the Turf Classic and the Washington DC International inside a month. Now the Oxford-born jockey, who likes to think of himself as an Irishman, has another talented four-year-old filly at his disposal, Balanchine.

She is the property of Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin set-up, the same team that ripped up Swinburn's papers after he brought them the Derby on Lammtarra. Unlike others recently, Swinburn did not squeal when ruffled by a Mohammed mandate. He understands that when the hand that feeds you wags its finger the reaction should not be to sink in the incisors. "Lammtarra doesn't hurt," he said. "That's just the way things are."

Swinburn has compiled an astonishing record for Godolphin this year either side of his removal from Lammtarra's chestnut back and is well placed to analyse the benefits of a winter in the Emirates. "It was a big help for them at the beginning because their coats were more forward, which was very noticeable at the Guineas meeting," he said. "But Godolphin is more than that.

"It's a very professional set-up who choose good horses to start with, use good work riders and train them very well." Their only fallibility, Swinburn may muse, is an absence of loyalty to Classic-winning jockeys.

No matter, Swinburn does not exactly have the worst ride in the Arc on Balanchine, who did as much for the cause as Germaine Greer last season by adding the Irish Derby to her Oaks victory. "I've only ridden the filly once [on Sunday]," Swinburn said, "but she's very well and fresh and if her prep is anything to go by she must have a great chance. She's been round the track and she'll handle the ground, so all we need now is a little bit of luck."

Good fortune is required because the Arc is a race in which the horses are stampeded as if a stick of dynamite has been employed behind them. "Everyone is out there to win and there are no favours done," Swinburn said. "It's a very rough race for the first half mile and you're just trying to get a position really.

"If you don't have the right horse and there is someone panicking it can cause mayhem." However many jockeys panic on the fringes of the Bois de Boulogne tomorrow, you can trust that Walter Swinburn will not be among their number.