Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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National Hunt Record

Wins: 1,314.

Cheltenham Wins: 17
(Leading jockey 1993 and 1994)

Notable Rides:
Istabraq (3 x Champion Hurdle)
Danoli (Royal & Sun Alliance Hurdle)
Viking Flagship (Queen Mother Champion Chase)
Ebony Jane (Irish Grand National),
Usher’s Island (Whitbread Gold Cup)
Life of a Lord (Whitbread Gold Cup)

Texaco All Star Award 1992.

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CHARLIE SWAN
JUMP JOCKEY

Culloden, 1746. Over a thousand Scotsmen lie dead. The Duke of Cumberland’s victorious English troops are running rampant in the Highlands. One of the Duke’s most trusted officers lies unconscious, presumed dead. A rattle of prison keys. A young Jacobite surgeon is pulled from his cell and taken to the seemingly lifeless man. The doctor sets to work. A spluttering, blood-soaked cough and the officer awakens. He will survive. ‘A life for a life’, barks the Duke, with one eye on the Scottish surgeon. He is to be pardoned but must leave Scotland. The Duke goes on to co-found the English Jockey Club and breed a horse called Eclipse, the greatest sire of the 18th century. And the surgeon, whose name was Swan, moves to Lincolnshire and becomes the ancestral sire of Charlie Swan, one of the finest jump jockeys of the late 20th century.

‘Did my father tell you all that?’, marvels Charlie, the horse beneath him turning full-circle. ‘It gets better every time’.[i]

Horse and jockey clatter off up the gallops, kicking dust into the sky. Straight ahead are the Slieve Bloom Mountains. But otherwise this north-western corner of Co. Tipperary is a horizontal landscape. As local patriot Thomas McDonagh wrote, it is a place ‘in calm of middle country’.

Captain Donald Swan, Charlie’s father, moved here from England in the 1960s.[ii] A former Dragoon, he was also a passionate huntsman.[iii] ‘I rode in the Grand National’, he says proudly, and then mutters, ‘didn’t get very far’. He had more success at Sandown, notching up a few winners. His regiment was later posted to Ulster. ‘I used to do a lot of race riding in the south, steeple-chasing and point-to-points, in a fun amateur way and I fell in love with Ireland.’

In time, Donald inherited some money and purchased Modreeny House, near Cloghjordan, with 200 acres.[iv] ‘The house hadn’t been lived in for 15 years’, he says. ‘There were chickens upstairs and sheep downstairs. It was just being used as a barn.’ Adjacent to the house lay the ruins of an O’Carroll castle, destroyed by Cromwell’s troops as they marched from Birr to Limerick. Legend holds that the O’Carroll treasure lies submerged upon the land; ambitious descendents occasionally appear with metal detectors.

From Modreeny, Donald hunted the Ormond Hunt for a while and later the Golden Vale.[v] While he primarily farmed, he also began training a half dozen racehorses. And when his small son Charlie began to clamber into the saddle, Donald realised he was the father of a very talented boy.

Both Charlie and Donald agree that the ‘jockey genes’ come from his mother. Teresa’s grandfather, Tom Chaloner, who was champion jockey in 1863 when he won both the 2000 Guineas and the Derby on Macaroni.[vi]

Charlie was born in the house in January 1968 with the aid of a local midwife. He was educated at Headfort School, Kells, Co. Meath, and Wilson’s Hospital, Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath. He first tasted victory aged 12 at a Pony Race in Ballinasloe. Three years later, he had his first win on the flat at Naas, riding Final Assault, bred by his father and owned by his grandmother, Nina Swan. ‘It really was a wonderful family win’, says Donald.

Charlie put the pressure on his parents to let him leave school early so that he could focus on being a jockey. He was apprenticed to Kevin Prendergast at the Curragh, and also won a 1000 guineas trial on John Hayden’s The Banshee.

With his weight rising, he transferred to jumps. His first break came when the late Paddy Mullins gave him the ride of Ash Creek which won the 1984 Hennessy Handicap at Leopardstown. By the time he moved to Dessie Hughes’ yard at the age of 16, Charlie’s phenomenal career was well underway.

Over the next nineteen years, he rode 1,314 winners, including seventeen at Cheltenham where he was leading jockey in both 1993 and 1994. He was 9-times champion jockey in Ireland and, before Ruby Walsh arrived on the scene, he had won more races over jumps in Ireland than any other jockey.

‘I never stopped trying to improve as a rider’, he says. ‘You should never think that you have conquered everything.’

His bugbear was the Aintree Grand National. ‘I always had a fixation on it’, he says. ‘When I was a kid I taped every race and I’d watch them over and over again’. However, while he can reel off the names of every winner since Rubstic in 1979, the best he could manage was 2nd place in the 1993 Aintree Grand National, the one that was declared void due to a false start.[vii] Charlie went on to win the Irish Grand National on the mare Ebony Jane nine days later.

JP McManus, one of Charlie’s most devoted followers, once described him as ‘a master technician and the most knowledgeable jockey I have ever spoken to’. JP was owner of the horse with which Charlie will forever be associated, namely Istabraq. A portrait of this handsome bay holds pride of place in Charlie’s kitchen. Istabraq was arguably the best two mile hurdler of modern times, winning the Champion Hurdle three years in a row. Charlie rode Istabraq in all 29 of his races over jumps, bringing in over a million pounds Sterling in prize money. Every now and then he goes to visit Istabraq who is now munching merrily on JP’s meadows. ‘He’s in great order’, says Charlie. ‘He gets looked after like a king’.

Statisticians reckon a jockey falls off his horse every four races. Charlie has no idea how many times he fell but ‘it must be well over a hundred’. He was on first name terms with the staff at Cheltenham Hospital. His father has a chart showing his miscellaneous injuries. Broken nose, lost front teeth, fractured skull, broken collar bone, fractured ribs, broken leg, broken foot, broken wrist, broken hand, cracked little finger, punctured lung, three breaks to left arm, three breaks to right arm, scarred lip, broken vertebrae, facial scarring over eye and on forehead. ‘People say how lucky he was’, muses Donald, ‘but he’s had his fair share of break ups’.

At the age of 35, Charlie rode his last race on board Like a Butterfly in the 2003 Aintree meeting. ‘It was a natural progression to hang up my boots and go training. I always said I’d stop at 35. After the high of Istabraq, I didn’t want to go out on a low, riding the odd time on hard ground and summer tracks …’.

‘You lost your nerve basically’, teases his wife who, as Carol Hyde, was no slouch in the saddle. She was frequently to be seen flying over fences six foot high and won fourteen races herself. Her jockey grandfather Timmy Hyde won the Aintree and Irish Grand Nationals, as well as the Cheltenham Gold Cup.[viii]

As a retirement present, JP McManus presented Charlie with a ‘This is Your Life’s style book called ‘Swansong’, charting his career from Ballinasloe onwards. A new chapter began as Charlie saddled his first winner as a full-time trainer when Fawn Prince scored at Bellewstown. He has learned a lot by simply observing while based at yards of trainers like Dessie Hughes, Aidan O’Brien and Martin Pipe. He now has over sixty-five horses in training and has trained over 400 winners, including One Cool Cookie, winner of the 1997 Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse.

He says that race-riding was somewhat easier than training . 'After a race you can just leave and head home. Training is different as you have to deal with the owners and their expectations. It is a tough job, and not everybody would have the temperament for it but, even though you do get stressed out at times, I love it.'

'Sporting Legends of Ireland' has been nominated for the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year Award 2010. Please vote for it here!

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FOOTNOTES

[i] ‘We got departed from Scotland after Culloden’, says Donald. ‘We were Bonnie Prince Charlie’s surgeons. He was about to get strung up after the battle by the Butcher Cumberland who was a pretty horrid mean machine and showed no quarter to prisoners, particularly if they were close to the Prince … He was to die but one of Cumberland’s officers was very badly wounded and our fellow did the job and saved him. Cumberland said ‘a life for a life’ and they sent the surgeon to Lincolnshire. So we’re lucky to be alive at all’. He casts a wary eye toward Birr where a huge column was built to celebrate ‘Butcher Cumberland’s victory at Culloden.

[ii] A thousand years ago, a crusader called de Marisco galloped home from his wars with the Saracen Turks armed with a rock which he had plucked from the bed of the River Jordan. The village which grew up around this rock was called ‘Clogh Jordan’, meaning Jordan’s stone.

[iii] The Swans were a military family. Donald’s father served with the Rilfe Brigade and Black Watch during both World Wars and his grandfather fought in the Boer War. Donald joined the 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards in the 1950s and simultaneously became a passionate huntsman.

[iv] They purchased it off George Whitfield, a naval captain, who had no one to leave it to and sold it for £40,000, with some “very good land” (200 acres, including. a 50 acre hill farm nearby), to the Swans in 1965. The house was built for the Dancer family in the 1760s and later passed to the Whitfields who extended it. During the Troubles of 1919-23, it was one of the lucky ones; many in this area were burned. Donald says the house had IRA bullet holes in the walls from an attempt to assassinate Whitefield during the War of Independence. The nearby mansion of Knocknacree [sic], home to Judge Jones, was burned to the ground, as were many of the lakeside properties on Lough Derg.

[v] Modreeny has long been the headquarters of the Ormond Hunt. The hounds sleep in kennels nearby, their baying sometimes sound across the meadows and the pretty River Ballyfinnboy which flows through the property.

[vi] Tom Chaloner (1839-1886), champion jockey and trainer, was born in Manchester in 1839. He was apprenticed to John Osborne, whose feisty daughter Nellie (1847-1944) he married; she was still hunting until she died aged 97. Tom went to Newmarket to ride for Richard Naylor, for whom he won the 2000 Guineas and the 1863 Derby on Macaroni. He had begun to train when he died at early age of 47 in 1886, leaving Nellie with three sons, including Tom Jr, Dick, Harry, George and Philip. Nellie managed to retain her husband’s licence, a unique feat in those times, to train upon the Heath. Tom Jr won the 1895 Cambridgeshire.

[vii] He came 5th in the 1990 National on Lastofthebrownies.

[viii] Carol’s first husband John Durkan was the man who sourced Istabraq for JP McManus. He tragically died from leukemia just days before the great horse won his first Irish Champion Hurdle under Charlie in 1998.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.