Swinburn the natural

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The Independent Online
A Journey from the brink will end at Windsor tomorrow. Walter Swinburn, healed, happy and - now - humble, will be legged up on an undistinguished bay colt called Talathath, six months and a day after a fearsome fall which came within a whisker of claiming his life.

Riding at Sha Tin in Hong Kong, Swinburn was catapulted at 40 miles an hour into an iron stanchion after his mount veered without warning across the track and crashed through the running rails. The jockey lay unconscious for several days as surgeons worked feverishly to clear his lungs of blood and fluids that threatened to suffocate him. Head injuries, a fractured shoulder and collarbone and broken ribs seemed almost incidental.

The accident was, like so many connected with horses, swift and brutal. The road to recovery has been long, physically painful and mentally depressing, but from the start it had no turning. "I never doubted for an instant that I would ride again," he said. "It's what I do, and what I love. It's my life."

Swinburn, who celebrated his 35th birthday four days ago, is one of the best horsemen among the top-flight jockeys, having come into racing via a thorough Pony Club grounding in his native Co Cork. Being on a horse is as natural to him as breathing; it was a pleasure to watch his silky handling of an ebullient Dance Sequence as she breezed on the Newmarket gallops on Friday morning. Being grounded, first by his injuries and then by stickling Jockey Club procedure, has been anathema.

"I found it was not the winners I missed, it was the riding," he said. "It was the longest I'd ever spent off a horse. I was ready to come back seven weeks ago, and my doctors agreed. I had to accept the Jockey Club's ruling - there was a problem with insurance cover, too, if I rode inside six months from the accident - but there have been moments when I've been very low."

Swinburn has been supported through the bad times not only by his close- knit family - parents Wally and Doreen and brother Michael - but also by reaction from further afield. "I have had thousands of cards, letters and faxes, and I'm keeping every one. They are such an inspiration. Many of them have been from people who have suffered similar injuries, mostly in car accidents, offering advice on how to come to terms with what happened."

Windsor on a Monday afternoon may seem a far cry from the glory of Lammtarra's Derby win last year but Swinburn accepts that he will, in a sense, be starting again from scratch. He no longer has a retainer with any of the leading operations; it is 308 days since he was last seen on a racecourse in Britain and choice rides which might once have been his by right will now have to be earned.

"It will not be easy, particularly as I'm now a freelance. I reckon I'll feel similar to an apprentice without a claim, but I'd like to think I've got at least 7lb of racing knowledge to use to my advantage. But I've got to prove my fitness and ability to trainers and owners. And I fully understand that the boys have been grafting all year and I cannot expect to jump on their mounts. There's no chance of that."

If anything positive has come out of the trauma, it is a changed perspective, accentuated by the recent death of the jump jockey Richard Davis. "After I recovered the doctors told me that another five minutes and I would have been dead," Swinburn said. "That is how lucky I've been, and I will not forget it."

No-one remembers what Lazarus did after his comeback, but it is certain that there will be more to Swinburn's than the act itself.