The Fear of Living Dangerously

The Monday Interview: Two months ago this horrific accident in Hong Kong nearly killed Walter Swinburn. Before it happened he combined a liking for the good life, with a serious commitment to his career as a top-class jockey. Now, as Ian Stafford discovers, he is a changed man
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H e looks, by his own admission, like "a convict". It is only when you see the back of his head, which reveals a couple of bald patches, that the signs of an accident that so nearly claimed his life are there for all to see. For the first time in his life the man who always had the youthful appearance of a choirboy looks to be at least his age.

Walter Swinburn is living testament that it can happen to the very best in the business of sport. His credentials as one of the world's top jockeys - three Derby wins, the Arc, and every other Classic except for the St Leger - could still not prevent one of the most horrific accidents ever witnessed on a racecourse.

Two months on and Swinburn, still only 34 years old, is on the slow road to recovery. His hopes for a return at this week's Craven meeting at Newmarket have been dashed by the repercussions of his injuries but, as he is the first to admit, he is at least alive. The whole terrifying episode looks to have changed the Irishman for good and, he believes, for better. Sitting at his Genesis Stud Farm home near Newmarket, he is happy to relive the events back on February 12. "It will be good therapy for me to talk about it," he says.

First, the facts. The fall occurred shortly after the start of a six furlong race at the Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong, when Swinburn's mount, Liffey River, veered left after the stalls opened. The horse went across the track and smashed through a running rail, hurling the jockey over his neck and into the post supporting the rail.

"It was the horse's first run out," Swinburn explained. "That's always hard, especially at a place like Sha Tin, where you face 50,000 screaming Chinese punters, but matters were made worse because the horse was made to wear blinkers.

"What often happens is that when the gates are open for the first time a new horse will get frightened, and when they're frightened they will run into a brick wall." He pauses for a second. "That's what happened to me."

Liffey River was drawn on the very outside, and as soon as the stalls opened up he veered off. Swinburn eventually managed to steer his mount straight. "My first thought was, `Oh Jesus, we're off course, and 10 lengths down on the field.'

"But then the horse veered off again in the direction I had been pulling him and headed straight for the rails. I put my hands down because I fully expected the horse to plough straight through the railing and catapult me to relative safety, but at the last second he swung round to collide sideways. That's the last thing I remember."

As Swinburn discovered later, he crashed into the stanchion and wrapped his body around it. As he lay, motionless, on the turf, everybody present, having seen the accident, feared the worst. Four days later he emerged from a coma in a Prince of Wales hospital bed in Hong Kong.

"I knew where I was, and that I had fallen, but I assumed it was the Monday morning after the race," he continued. "I tried speaking to a nurse, and discovered I could only squeak. That's when I panicked. I had no idea of the extent of my injuries, but I knew it was pretty bad. It never occurred to me that my career might be over, but I initially feared I'd be out for the year."

Pretty bad is, needless to say, an understatement. Swinburn had cracked and fractured ribs, a broken collar bone, fluid on the lungs, and extensive bruising both to his brain and upper part of his body. During the crucial first couple of days after the fall his condition was described as "critical". Only the close proximity of the hospital to the racecourse saved him.

"My lung was apparently filling up with blood. Luckily the Prince of Wales Hospital was right alongside the racecourse. The doctors told me later that if it had taken more than 15 minutes to have transported me to a hospital it might have been too late."

Swinburn's father, Wally, had flown out the day after the accident, so when his son asked to see him, he was surprised to find his father already in Hong Kong. "He filled me in with the details of the accident and my injuries. As a precaution, because my brain was bruised, they shaved off my hair and then drilled a couple of holes into my head."

Swinburn spent a week in intensive care, and a further three weeks in the hospital. It was only after leaving intensive care that he discovered the state of his head. "I was still attached to a morphine machine, but was beginning to mend. Once I was moved into a private ward I saw myself for the first time in a toilet mirror. My honest reaction was to wonder who the hell it was staring back at me. For a split second I thought it might be someone standing behind me."

Despite his obvious predicament, Swinburn had high hopes he would be able to make the lucrative Dubai World Cup at the end of last month. "I asked them about it and, although they didn't rule it out, I could tell by their expressions that I didn't stand a chance."

Before February 12 Swinburn had enjoyed a long, relatively accident-free, and extremely successful career. At only 19 he rode the ill-fated Shergar to victory in the 1981 Derby, and later repeated this feat on Shahrastani and, last summer, on Lammtarra. Well-known and sometimes frowned upon for his love of enjoying himself away from the racecourse, Swinburn nevertheless produced the results in the races that counted. Yet his experiences in Hong Kong have initiated something of a transformation in his character.

It began with his response to his accident. "I received masses of telegrams and cards from inside and outside the racing industry, even from old school friends who I hadn't spoken to for 10 years. I can tell you that it was very, very uplifting."

But what really made Swinburn re-evaluate was a tragedy that he and his family became immersed in. "While I was in hospital a hillside fire killed seven children, and injured around 20 more. Some of the kids had 90 per cent burns.

"My father was sitting outside intensive care when a Chinese man asked him how I was." He told him and asked why the man was there. It turned out that the man's daughter was one of the victims of the fire. Over the course of the day the two of them formed a bond.

"What really got me was that the poor man, who was suffering so much himself, took the time to send me a card and to pay me a visit. A little later that week his daughter, Rita, died. That, I can tell you, left its mark.

"I'd been lying there feeling sorry for myself, and wondering about when I could get back into racing, when I heard the man's story. It rather put everything into order. I decided that I was the lucky one that day.

"Later, our family decided to set up a fund for the victims of the fire. Hong Kong's a very busy and fast place, and many of these little children will now be in wheelchairs, or horribly scarred for life, so they are going to need all the help they can get."

Back home in Newmarket Swinburn believes that the memories of these children have changed his own values. "Before, when I had a problem, it was a much bigger deal than it would be now. I know now that if I were to dwell on any problem I would only have to think of the kids back in Hong Kong, and that would immediately put things into perspective. I'm pretty relaxed now, and I hope I stay that way."

As if to reinforce his point, he brings up the disappointment of losing the ride of Lammtarra, having won the Derby, to Frankie Dettori, who claimed back the Godolphin retainership.

"It wasn't really a slight on me, but I was still very disappointed. Winning the Derby was very emotional, especially as Lammtarra had been trained by Alex Scott, who had been murdered that year. Frankie went on to win the King George and the Arc, and I would have liked to have been on board. It was like Jimmy Greaves being dropped from the England team for the 1966 World Cup final, and then seeing Geoff Hurst scoring a hat-trick."

He leans forward to make the point he had been leading up to. "At the time I thought it was the end of the world for me. But you know what? After surviving the fall, and seeing the burned kids in Hong Kong, if a similar thing happened to me this year, I'd think: `So what!' "

The recuperation is working albeit slowly. His days have been spent walking six or seven miles, and undergoing physiotherapy on his shoulder, which is still to regain full mobility. It was only three weeks ago that he stopped taking painkillers. As he admits, although his body is almost back to normal, he then has to get down to racing weight and fitness, and build up his muscles. Now, with luck, Swinburn hopes to return for the Guineas meeting at Newmarket in the first week in May.

He is itching to get back, but has reservations. "I'm going to make sure I'm going to be 100 per cent before I return. I could probably canter now, but I don't have the strength in my shoulder to push the horse and I'd be very weak at the finish.

"I know people will be looking out for me, and wondering whether I still have what it takes, but I don't want to be remembered for the accident. I'd hate it if, at the end of the season , I'm introduced to someone who replies, `Oh yes, you're the jockey who almost killed yourself.' I'll just have to go out and win the St Leger to complete the full set."

Never mind the St Leger, though, what of the first race back?

"I'll admit it's going to be a test. It's funny, but after all the years I've been involved at the top of flat racing, I know I'm going to be very apprehensive. I just need a little reassurance, that's all."

He stares out of the window into the yard, already beginning the process of reassurance. "One race," he says. "It'll only need one race."