DANTE DAY at York, and after Wednesday’s incessant deluge, the sun was shining again on the Knavesmire. It should have been a day to savour, especially with Middleham’s Mark Johnston springing a 10-1 surprise as Permian became the third North Yorkshire-trained Dante winner in the last five years. Instead, the mood was much more melancholic.
On Wednesday evening, one of North Yorkshire’s most popular trainers, Alan Swinbank, died suddenly at his home in Melsonby at the age of 72. Earlier in the afternoon, he saddled what proved to be his final runner as Busy Street finished in mid-division in the final race of the opening day of the Dante meeting.
A dual-purpose operator who trained almost 800 winners in a career that began when he took out his first professional license in 2001, he was a respected and much-loved figure on the Northern racing circuit. North Yorkshire’s racing community is a close-knit affair, and this was a day when the pain of a shared loss outweighed anything that was happening on the track.
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“I’ve known him all my life,” said Michael Dods, who was one of Swinbank’s closest neighbours at his Denton Hall base. “I was good pals with him when we were both young, well before he started training.
“He used to live just down the road from us at Walworth, and was a dealer in hay and straw. My father used to tell a tale of how he would park his wagon at the end of our road, but would often have trouble starting it. One morning, he got it started, but couldn’t control it and it drove straight into the end of the building.
“He didn’t have horses at that stage, but he got into it when he had a few with Arthur Stephenson and started out himself when he trained point-to-pointers. He enjoyed a lot of success and had some really nice horses down the years, although Collier Hill would be the stand-out.”
Collier Hill was the horse that elevated Sedgefield-born Swinbank to the status of racing royalty when he won 15 races in eight different countries between 2002 and 2006.
The long-distance specialist was a Group One winner on three different continents, landing the Irish St Leger in 2005 before going on to claim the Pattison Canadian International at Woodbine and Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin.
His other stable stars included Cambridgeshire winner Formal Decree, Lancashire Oaks victor Turbo Linn and top dual-purpose performer Alfie Flits, and his final success came courtesy of Genres, who triumphed at Hamilton just over a week ago. Previously married to trainer Ann Duffield, he is survived by two children, Julian and Michelle.
“I rode of lots of winners for him, essentially from day one,” said jockey Ben Curtis, who had struck up a successful relationship with Swinbank in the last few years. “When I came over from Ireland when things dried up, the reason I made the move over was because of Alan.
“We had lots of good days, and winning the Cumberland Plate on Kinema a few years ago was a real highlight. He loved winners at York and in the North, but he was also a hell of a man to buy a horse.
“You could follow him around at the sales and you wouldn’t go far wrong, as he had great judgement and great knowledge on breeding.”
An emotional tribute highlighting Swinbank’s achievements was played out on the big screen before racing, but the world waits for no one and for all that the atmosphere amongst trainers and jockeys was understandably subdued, the Dante was still staged in front of the packed York grandstands in much the same way that it has been since it was inaugurated in 1958.
Since then, ten of its winners have gone on to land the Derby at Epsom, with the most recent double champion having been Golden Horn in 2015.
Could Permian emulate that feat? He will have to be supplemented for the Derby at a price of £85,000 as he is not currently entered in the Classic, but having cruised to victory in hugely-impressive style yesterday, Johnston’s new stable star unquestionably has a strong chance of becoming only the third North Yorkshire-trained Derby winner.
“He had to be supplemented for this race, so I don’t think that (supplementing him for the Derby) is an issue,” said Johnston. “That’s to be discussed, but it’s quite a while since I’ve had a live chance in the Derby, so I’d be absolutely delighted to go there.
“I can’t really remember the last time I had a runner. I’m always considered to be a trainer of middle-distance horses and stayers, but I’ve had far more runners in the Guineas than the Derby.
“The Dante tells you if you’ve got a Derby horse. I remember bringing a Guineas winner here once (Mister Baileys) and he didn’t stay, but we still went to Epsom anyway and he didn’t stay there either. Clearly, this horse has progressed a long way and Epsom wouldn’t hold any fears for us.”
Permian was trimmed to 12-1 for the Derby, with Cracksman, who beat him by a short-head at Epsom earlier in the season, also cut to 6-1.
There was a shock in today’s other feature race, the Middleton Stakes, as Blond Me (11-1) made a mockery of her position as the outsider of a field of four as she swept home on the outside to land the spoils.
Trained by Andrew Balding, the five-year-old’s last success had come in Turkey, and while the absence of last year’s Musidora winner, So Mi Dar, devalued yesterday’s win slightly, Blond Me must now be considered for some of the year’s leading races for middle-distance fillies.
Elsewhere on the card, course specialist Duke of Firenze (13-2) followed up his success in last year’s Betfred Supports Jack Berry House Stakes with another flying success over five furlongs, while Here Comes When (10-1) made the most of his favoured soft conditions to land the Hambleton Stakes.