Swinburn steps back in thanks

RACING: A jockey who was close to death a year ago is striding off on the road of reparation. Richard Edmondson reports
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Jarrow has done it, so have Forest Gump, Ffyona Campbell and Hannibal. Now it is Walter Swinburn who is setting out on a great yomp on Monday.

The jockey taken close to death by a catastrophic racecourse accident in Hong Kong in February embarks on a charity walk across Ireland next week to raise funds for causes close to his heart. The St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, the Cambridge Children's Hospice and a fund set up to help youngsters who were being treated for deep burns in the Prince Of Wales Hospital in the colony while Swinburn himself recovered there from his head and chest injuries, will all benefit from the Cork to Dublin trek.

There are plenty to attest that there has been a metamorphosis in Swinburn since Liffey River sent him crashing through the running rails at Sha Tin at the beginning of last year. Before then the conventional image of Swinburn had been of a man who indulged his station as one of the nation's most successful riders. Ever since he won the Derby on Shergar in 1981 as a 19-year-old the gossip has been of a figure who fitted most snugly into the role of a turf playboy.

Hong Kong, though, has further brought out the emotions of a person who exhibited his vulnerability after winning the 1995 Derby on Lammtarra. As he recuperated on his sick bed last February the idea came easily that repayment was not a choice but a prerogative.

"I thought about all this while I was still in Hong Kong," he said yesterday. "I had to get back riding first but there was always something going to be done for those children in Hong Kong. I received a lot of support from people on my way back and it's important for me to give something back to everyone else."

That Ireland should be the venue for his reciprocation is no surprise. The 35-year-old's birth certificate may state that he was born in Oxford, England, but he regards that as a statistical aberration and himself as an Irishman. His father, Wally snr, is a former champion jockey of Ireland and his mother, Doreen, was born and bred over the water.

The Emerald Isle was where the elfin Swinburn first learned to ride and also where he was educated, at Rockwell College at Cashel in Tipperary, which will be a stopping off point on his journey next Wednesday.

St Vincent's Hospital, where the finishing tape will be strung out, is also a landmark of personal significance as it was there that Swinburn's friend John Durkan has recently received treatment for leukaemia. It appears that like Swinburn before him, Durkan, who was struck down by the disease just as he was embarking on a career as a trainer, is not about to trot forward when the final forefinger beckons.

"I spoke to John last week and he sounds as if he's doing really well," Swinburn said. "If he keeps going the way he is he'll be back training before you know it."

As Ireland's southern counties are woken by the noise of jangling buckets next week, it will be doubly hard to miss Swinburn, as he is followed by two back-up vehicles and an entourage of some substance. "I don't think I'll be lonely," he said. "They don't do things that way in Ireland."

In the time he gets to ponder, the "Choirboy" will be able to go through the range, from the bone-grinding nightmare of Sha Tin to the glory of the Breeders' Cup and Toronto, where he piloted Pilsudski to rapturous success in the Turf event. It was when speaking of that day that Swinburn insisted he was a non-fare-paying passenger and that his physical rehabilitation was as yet incomplete.

"I'd been saying all along that everything was geared towards next March and the start of the Flat season at Doncaster, so I couldn't turn round after one race and say everything was back to normal," he said.

Before the genesis of Town Moor, Swinburn will take his blisters off for a week's holiday in the sun, and then complete the physical regimen he has set for himself by flying out to the United States for work with the trainer Neil Drysdale.

Dubai may also receive a visit from the man who, according to Frankie Dettori, is the most naturally gifted riding talent alive today.

During all that time Swinburn will be doing his hardest to observe the dictum he will, as tradition dictates, set for himself today. "My New Year's wish is to stay healthy and clear of injury," he said. Walter Swinburn deserves that to come true.

Anyone wishing to make a donation to the charities can do so through the Walter Swinburn Charity Walk account at Barclays Bank plc, High Street, Newmarket CB8 8NH (sort code 20-60-38 and Account No: 00632066)


6 January: Cork - Fermoy, via Riverstown, Sallybrook, Ballinvinny

7 January: Fermoy - Cahir, via Mitchelstown

8 January: Cahir -Cashel, via New Inn, Rockwell College

9 January: Cashel - Johnstown, via Horse & Jockey, Littleton

10 January: Johnstown - Abbeyleix, via Cullahill

11 January: Abbeyleix - Monasterevin, via Portlaoise, Ballybrittas

12 January: Monasterevin - Naas, via Kildare, the Curragh

13 January: Naas - Rathcoole, via Johnstown, Kill

14 January: Rathcoole - Leopardstown, via Saggart, Tallaght, Rathfarnham

15 January: Leopardstown - Mansion House, via St Vincent's Hospital