Swinburn's career hangs in the balance

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The Independent Online
The riding career of Walter Swinburn, which has included a Derby winner and a near-fatal accident in the last two years alone, took a new turn yesterday when the jockey announced his intention to take "a sabbatical from race-riding". The 35-year-old rider said that his decision was the result of a "continuing weight problem", but he added that "it is certainly not on my mind to retire altogether".

In a statement, Swinburn said: "I am taking this step in the long-term interests of my career. I would not be fair to myself or anyone else if I did not give my body or my metabolism a chance to settle down, and it has significantly failed to do that over recent months, in spite of rigid adherence to a medically supervised diet."

Swinburn's announcement prompted complete astonishment throughout racing, not simply because of its substance, but also as a result of its timing. On Saturday week, he had been due to partner the most highly regarded horse of his generation, Entrepreneur, in the 2,000 Guineas, the first Classic of the season. Entrepreneur is already the ante-post favourite for the Derby, an event which Swinburn has won three times, most memorably on Shergar when he was just 19 years old.

Like Shergar, Entrepreneur is trained by Michael Stoute, who stood by Swinburn when many felt he was too young and inexperienced to ride a Derby favourite, and has been his most significant employer ever since. "Naturally I am hugely disappointed to be forced into making this decision," the jockey added, "particularly when the year appears to hold so much promise for [Michael Stoute's] horses. I wish Mr Stoute and everyone at Freemason's Lodge a hugely successful year and hope that it is not too long before I am once again playing a significant part in the story."

Stoute, too, expressed his regret at yesterday's news. "I have been very aware that life has been a struggle for him recently," the trainer said, "and I look forward to him coming back when the problem is under control, when he will most certainly have my full support."

Away from the track, Swinburn has not always lived up to his nickname of "the Choirboy", and last month he was fined pounds 500 and ordered to pay pounds 600 in compensation after admitting an assault on a Newmarket restaurateur. During the proceedings, Swinburn admitted to suffering from an eating disorder which reduced his tolerance to alcohol, but when he returned to riding at Nottingham a fortnight later, there was little indication that anything but a full campaign lay before him.

Even by the rollercoaster standards of his profession, Swinburn's career has veered wildly from high to low. Less than two years ago, he won his third Derby on Lammtarra, only to lose the ride on the subsequent King George and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner to Lanfranco Dettori shortly afterwards. Then, the following February, came the moment to which many will feel the rider's latest troubles can trace their origin, when in the space of a few desperate seconds at Sha Tin in Hong Kong, Swinburn was left battered and almost lifeless when his mount crashed through a running-rail at speed.

His protracted recovery from severe head and chest injuries was extended further when the Jockey Club refused to licence him to ride until six months from the date of his accident. As so often in such circumstances, Swinburn's comeback ride, at Windsor on 12 August, was a winner, and when he partnered Pilsudski to victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf, one of the world's most valuable races, in Canada three months later, it looked that his career had caught an upcurrent once again.

Yet now it seems that while the obvious injuries from Sha Tin had healed, other scars remained. Weight problems can strike a jockey at any moment, and while Swinburn inherited talent in abundance from his father, Wally, himself a leading rider, he has never had the scrawny build of a natural lightweight. It is just three months since Walter Swinburn walked across Ireland to raise pounds 60,000 for charity. His personal journey towards full professional health, by contrast, remains far from complete.

Racing, page 25