Few enough manage to ride and train successfully at the highest level, and far fewer have done so concurrently, as Charlie Swan did for five years before retiring from the saddle at Aintree on Grand National day 20 years ago. The first jockey to ride 1,000 winners over jumps in Ireland, where he was champion jockey nine times, he enjoyed fabulous associations with racing greats like Istabraq and Danoli and then won more Grade 1s in his second career. In nine Grand Nationals he came closest when second in the infamous void race of 1993, a record which saw him recognised as the greatest Irish-based jump jockey of the modern era not to win the race, but he enjoyed plenty of success elsewhere at the meeting and won the Aintree Hurdle four times.
I was going to retire after riding a nner on the Friday of Aintree on a horse I trained for JP [McManus] called Patriot Games, but I had two booked rides the following day and didn’t want to let anyone down. I fell at the last on the first of them, but then in the Aintree Hurdle I rode Like-A-Butterfly, who I’d won a Supreme on, and I came back to a great reception after she finished third. By then I was only riding over hurdles, having chosen to do so to try and get a few more years out of it and to stay sound for Istabraq. But that meant I was out of the running for championships, and with Istabraq long gone it wasn’t quite the same. I was training more horses too and my son Harry was on the way, so it was a combination of things.
When I rode Cahervillahow in the void Grand National, Mouse Morris had told me that his owner Mrs Valentine had promised me half the prize-money if we won. There was no way I was going to stop riding while there was even the smallest chance the result would stand. I’ll admit we had a fair idea it wouldn’t, but it was a strange day, with a lot of protesters around, and it was the second fastest National ever, so it rode a proper race. I thought Cahervillahow had no chance of getting around as he was such an unlucky horse – second in the Thyestes, beaten a short-head in the Irish National and disqualified in the Whitbread – but he gave me a great ride and we finished second to Esha Ness before they voided the result.
I’ve loved the Grand National since watching my father ride in it in L’Escargot’s year  when I was just seven, but I wasn’t lucky in it. I was never closer than fifth apart from the void race, and although I got round in my first six rides I didn’t in my last three. I used to slag my dad that he was riding so long that he’d tripped up his own horse, an outsider called Zimulator, having led to the fourth. He liked to tell me that you are not a man unless you make the running in the National, so I made it one year on one of Martin Pipe’s, Riverside Boy. I was tempted to give him two fingers to the camera when we jumped the same fence!
I loved riding at Liverpool. People say it’s tight, but they should ride around some of the tracks in Ireland! I had a lot of luck there, particularly in the Aintree Hurdle. It used to be a good race for a novice, and after Danoli won it straight after his win in the SunAlliance I told Aidan [O’Brien] to do the same with Urubande, and he also won both races. Istabraq was beaten in it by Pridwell after his first Champion Hurdle, but I didn’t give him a great ride. It was a filthy wet day and I did neither one thing nor the other. I probably should have made it, as he was quite keen, and it’s a race I’d like to have ridden again. When he went back a year later it was one of his most impressive wins.
I trained for another 12 years after I stopped riding and I loved it. I had great owners like JP, John Magnier and Gigginstown, but my accountant kept telling me that if I didn’t have 50 horses I wasn’t making money, and I had only 38. It’s strange – you feel as if you are charging a lot, but you actually aren’t charging enough, as there’s so much expense involved, especially if you have your own gallops and so on to maintain.
Nowadays I buy horses for JP in France, and I also buy National Hunt foals and yearlings to sell as three-year-olds in partnership with my brother-in-law Norman Williamson, and Tim Hyde and Timmy senior. The JP job involves a lot of trips to France to Auteuil and Compiegne, but it tends to go in cycles of three months so I’m not travelling all the time. We are trying to buy good horses, not just horses who can win races, and the first one was Defi Du Seuil. I bought Espoir D’Allen, who won his Champion Hurdle by 15 lengths and was sick the only time he was ever beaten, as well as Epatante, but I’ve bought some bad ones too!
My son Harry is doing well as an amateur now. He’s riding out for Gordon Elliott and John Patrick Ryan and juggling that with a medical science degree at Trinity. He’s really enjoying it, but he’s quite heavy and I think he’s hoping to get a good job out of his degree and then to ride as an amateur like Patrick Mullins and Jamie Codd. I’m sure he’ll do the right thing as he has plenty of brains.
I think the whip rule changes were very badly timed. It’s done now, though, and the lads must knuckle down. It’s not easy, counting how many times you’ve used the whip, keeping it below shoulder height, and not using it out of stride. When you are trying to win the race you can get over excited and lose count; it’s especially difficult for the younger guys, but it would definitely be dangerous to ride without a stick, as horses would run out or stop. There has to be a happy medium. The hardest part now is the possibility of disqualification – imagine winning the Grand National and having to wait day to hear if you are going to keep the race.