Swinburn's first-class return

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The Independent Online

Walter Swinburn had dreamed about yesterday, when he won on his comeback ride here. But during the empty six months after the race-riding accident in Hong Kong that almost took his life, the jockey rarely imagined the winners' enclosure. Swinburn just thought of the simple pleasure of competing on a racehorse. He now realises the world would be a great wilderness if he did not enjoy the sport. "What this has all shown me is that I'm lost without racing," he said. "I need it."

It took Swinburn some time to wake up after Liffey River had catapulted him through the Sha Tin rails in February. He had desperate injuries to his head, shoulder and ribs, and there is still evidence of that dreadful day on his body. He would have died with his lungs full of blood if the hospital had been another five minutes away from the racecourse. Yesterday, Swinburn's eyes opened more easily, like a child's on Christmas morning. "I was excited," he said. "I was up at five o'clock and I went out for a walk."

Swinburn has the elfin looks and soft tones that have led to a sobriquet of "the Choirboy". Yet he was 35 last week and must be as tough as a ship's sides to have recovered from Hong Kong. Until recently he has displayed the sort of haircut some associate with Greenham Common. But the coiffure was more luxuriant when he arrived yesterday, in an ensemble of green checked shirt, blue blazer and fawn slacks. You could tell something was up because he checked in at 1.57, which is normally the time he turns up for the 2.00. His first appointment back, however, was in the 3.30 on Talathath.

When Swinburn emerged for combat it was in quartered dark and light blue livery. His boots were shiny enough for a drill, but then he has had plenty of time to polish them. He was sixth in the riders' echelon, and adjusted his whip to the vertical to acknowledge the applause that met him as he left the weighing room.

Then came the Swinburn walk, the sort of bow-legged gait you expect in a cowhand who has just finished a cross-state cattle drive and is heading for the hot tub.

Talathath, in his vivid blue visor, threw his head around extravagantly as he transported the day's focal point out on to the course. After that he was no trouble at all. The gelding was in third place for much of the race and was produced a furlong out to win by a length and a half.

By the end, Talathath was sweating, and so was Swinburn. "I got a bit tired, but all in all I was well pleased with my fitness," he said. "I'm blowing and my legs went a bit, but I thought it was going to be worse than that to tell you the truth."

The applause in the winners' enclosure again came easily and no one seemed to mind that Cape Pigeon, the mount of Lanfranco Dettori and the main danger up the straight, had hardly been punished to the very edge of his life. The stewards inquired into this but declined to rewrite the fairy story. It might be unworthy, yet useful, to suggest one of the best systems in racing is to back jockeys on either their comeback or retirement rides.

Swinburn was, and may still be, a member of racing's version of the brat pack, a man who is seldom stumped for thoughts when prospective parties are discussed. But he certainly talks a different game these days. He prayed at daybreak yesterday. "I just asked to make sure the day went well and, if He thought I was worthy of it, to give me a winner, but, if not, so be it," he said.

There was some dissent over the weight problem that Swinburn will carry throughout his career, and the time it took the jockey to convince the authorities that he was fit to return. These grumbles, however, were washed away by the excitement of a working life reborn. "The biggest thrill was just riding," he said. "And coming in and seeing the boys in the weighing room. I need racing."