Andrew Thornton: 'I feel privileged. I'm riding one of the best horses in the country'

After Best Mate's calamity, a former Gold Cup winner finds he is on the favourite.
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The Independent Online

So, the king is dead? One could be forgiven for imagining that to be the case after surveying the obituary-like headlines and accompanying prose resulting from Best Mate's defection from Cheltenham Festival's showpiece. Elsewhere, the response was probably rather more pragmatic. A case of Drop the "Dead" Champion. From the moment on Thursday morning when Henrietta Knight surveyed the bleeding nostrils of Best Mate and advised her husband, Terry Biddlecombe: "There's no Gold Cup this year", the quest was on for alternative potential heroes. With the inevitable spotlight on the next in line to the throne.

Long live Kingscliff? In the instant that Robert Alner's eight-year-old assumed Gold Cup favouritism, the world of his jockey, Andrew Thornton, was transformed. By nightfall, there were requests for exclusives, while the likes of this observer were demanding a response to the fact that a principal rival, a national treasure, is effectively removed from exhibition to the museum vaults for a year.

"It's damned desperate for his connections"; Thornton finds the correct words of commiseration for those involved with the three-times Gold Cup victor. "Very sad. It does take something away from the public's point of view. But from a purely professional viewpoint, it does give Kingscliff a better chance."

And presumably applies a different kind of pressure on Kingscliff's partner? "Not really. Pressure is self-inflicted," he retorts. "I'd rather be on the favourite than a 50-1 chance. I've ridden the race in my head 20 or 30 times already. I'll probably do it another 100 times before Friday.

"I recognise I'm in a very privileged position, riding one of the best horses in the country, and you want to make the best of your opportunity. But there's no point worrying about it."

The fact that the 32-year-old, now based at Highclere, 300 miles from his native North-east, has already cajoled one Gold Cup winner, Cool Dawn, in 1998, to victory up that stamina-consuming Cheltenham incline can only be an advantage. Does he still replay that moment through his mind? "Of course you relive it," Thornton says. "It's good vibes, isn't it? I can only take positive things out of the Gold Cup, because I've only ever ridden in it twice, and I've won it and finished second [on Alner's Sir Rembrandt last year]."

He adds: "I've got a fair idea where I want to be at the top of the hill, with four to jump, But it's a unique race, at three miles and two furlongs. It was never just about Best Mate, anyway. This is the best Gold Cup for quite a few years. Horses like Grey Abbey and Rule Supreme, for example, will definitely relish the trip. Ultimately, fate will play its part. I could be brought down at the first."

Within this unpredictable theatre, a mischievous conspiracy of the gods can never be ignored. We had already spoken earlier in the week, at Fontwell. Thornton required no reminding that it was there, six weeks after that 1998 Gold Cup victory, that he had fractured a leg. "May 4th. Quarter past four, it was," he recalls with grim precision."

Back to that afternoon last week. Thornton has two rides. Five from home in his first race he is called upon to summon all of a jockey's instincts for survival; at that instant his mount's action is less that of a flowing Colin Jackson, more a steeplechase straggler as hoof strikes birch. "Andrew Thornton is sat tight," commentator Derek Thompson booms over the PA. "He's lost his reins, he's lost everything, but he's still in the saddle." Somehow, assuming the balance of a trapeze artist and the poise of a horseman who has perfected his craft over a 13-year career, Thornton remains secure. He is aided by the fact that he rides long in the saddle, "like John Wayne" according to weighing-room banter.

The first prize in this handicap chase is a mere £4,695.60. Thornton finishes out of the money in fifth. Can it really be worth placing his body in such peril nine days before the Festival for such rewards? Thornton believes it is, in order to "go into Cheltenham fresh, but race-fit".

Anyway, in the rationale of National Hunt jockeys' own Big Bang Theory, which measures the probability of a potentially catastrophic collision between turf and bone, he is not due a fall. "I was at Hereford on Monday, and I hadn't had a fall for 105 rides - not since 14 January," says Thornton. "I'd started to think about it three weeks ago - 'God Almighty, I'm having a good run here. But it won't last. Itcan't last'. So, you get to the stage where you're thinking, 'Hmm, I could just do with a fall before Cheltenham'. Get it out the way."

His wish was fulfilled. He was unseated at the last in a beginners' chase, and emerged unscathed. "I'll be happy if I go another 105 rides without one." He didn't, of course, collecting a crashing tumble at Sandown yesterday, a sore back and a rest for the remainder of the afternoon.

Which sets him up for this, the week most anxiously awaited by the weighing-room fraternity, a Festival in which his name will always be associated with Cool Dawn, bought by his owner, Dido Harding, as "a nice safe ride for me in ladies' point-to-points". The horse's productive season culminated in a 25-1 Gold Cup victory.

"The horse was an improving handicapper who had won at Ascot three times," recalls Thornton. "But we were just going out for the beer, basically. Robert Alner [his trainer] said, 'If he finishes in the first six, he'll have run a blinder. Go out and enjoy yourself'. So, that's what I did. Nobody had any great expectations. So there were never any disappointments.

"I remember the race clearly. The previous year, I had lost my grandmother, Nancy. Her husband, Tommy, had had horses, 70-odd winners, and she followed my career from when I started but never got to see me win a big race. We were very close, and I vividly remember she was in my thoughts about four from home. Maybe I hoped for a bit of divine intervention."

He had joined the Dorset-based Alner from Kim Bailey's yard after moving south early in his career. There is mutual respect, and hence Alner, a former top amateur himself, did not attempt to influence Thornton when he elected to partner the King George runner-up Kingscliff in this year's Gold Cup rather than Sir Rembrandt.

"Kingscliff's bucking and kicking and in great heart," says Thornton. "I couldn't be happier. He's 7lb better than he was going into the King George. In the last three weeks he's really blossomed. It probably seems strange not to keep faith with a horse which finished second last year. I might well have made the wrong decision. Sir Rembrandt's in fantastic shape, too. But Kingscliff's less exposed and there's improvement to be had. I came down on that side, and the fact that it's a fairly dry forecast. Kingscliff won't mind good ground. Sir Rembrandt would prefer soft."

Both Thornton's parents, David and Jean, and sister Victoria will be among the Cheltenham throng, together with his fiancée, Clare, who is assistant to trainer Paul Ritchens. Thornton was raised in farming country and rode a pony from childhood. It was a natural progression from there to a racing stable.

Yet the boy who attended the same school, Barnard Castle, as Rob Andrew and Rory and Tony Underwood could have followed their career paths. "I played for the first team at fly-half and got the chance to tour South Africa, but I turned it down because I was starting work at Arthur Stephenson's yard." He harbours no regrets. "If I'd have gone on the tour, I'd have been on the beer, whatever. But my priority was to start work, to start riding. Rugby union wasn't paid, so there was no option. Maybe if it had been 15 years down the line, who knows? Jonny Wilkinson might never have got in the England team!"

Stephenson, a Gold Cup-winning doyen of North-east horseracing, died a year after Thornton joined him, but left his impression on the youngster, who exploded on to the scene - a case of Stephenson's Rocket perhaps? - and proceeded to win amateur riders' championships in successive years. "He kept me on the straight and narrow. He was always on to me: 'Eh, man, you don't be having too many late nights'," says Thornton with affection. "He analysed closely the way you rode. There was never a pat on the back. Arthur never said, 'Well done. That was brilliant'.

"You may have won easily, but he'd say, 'Why did you do that? What were you doing, looking around? What were you doing there, letting him up the inside?' He was always asking questions. But it was always constructive criticism."

There were other North-east mentors, too; jockeys like Chris Grant and the late Alan Merrigan, who was killed in a car crash. "Alan and I were mates. He was 6ft 3in, but he was a great horseman, and he taught me a hell of a lot. He had very soft hands and was very kind to horses."

Thornton was clearly an attentive pupil. Victory on Kingscliff would be further testament to that for one of the weighing room's unsung members.


Andrew Robert Thornton

Born: 28 October 1972, Cleveland.

Lives: Highclere, Berkshire with fiancée Clare. Height: 5ft 11in. Riding weight: can do 10st 4lb.

Career: Started at the Bishop Auckland stable of the late Arthur Stephenson as a 16-year-old. First win on Wrekin Hill at Sedgefield on 23 Nov 1991. Twice champion amateur jockey (1992 and 1993). Also conditional jockey with Kim Bailey in Lambourn before joining Robert Alner's Dorset stable.

Big-race wins: 1997: King George VI Chase at Kempton on See More Business. 1998: Cheltenham Gold Cup on Cool Dawn; SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle on French Holly. 2001: Scottish Grand National on Gingembre.