Racing: The sweet year of Thornton

Cheltenham Festival: Racing sits up and takes notice of a fall guy who turned tall guy. Sue Montgomery reports
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The Independent Online
AROUND the same time that Britain's best ski jumper was acting as court jester to the white circus, a teenage aspiring jockey was entertaining the lads at a Co Durham training stable by likewise emerging from some spectacular crashes with thick specs and cheery grin intact. But for a man once nicknamed Eddie The Eagle, Andrew Thornton is now flying particularly high.

Ten years down the line, the glasses - on horseback at least - have been replaced by contact lenses and the raw talent honed to a skill that has him lying in a close sixth place in the jockeys' championship table on a best-ever score, with his maiden century a real possibility, two Grade One winners - the King George VI Chase on See More Business and the Tolworth Hurdle on French Holly - already in the locker and some plum rides coming up at Cheltenham. This has been the season when Thornton, 25, has at last stepped into the spotlight.

And nobody can possibly begrudge him his success. His policy has always been "have saddle, will travel" and that - combined with the usual successful sportsman's qualities of dedication, determination and natural ability - has reaped just reward.

Only the runaway title leader Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson, attached to Britain's two biggest jumping yards, have taken more mounts and Thornton's schedule for the past week would make a trucker feel that he'd merely been down to the shops and back.

From his base in Lambourn, just off the M4 in Berkshire, the jockey travelled to Newton Abbot on Monday; back down to Exeter on Tuesday; north to Bangor- on-Dee via a dawn schooling session at Banbury, Oxfordshire, on Wednesday; to his main employer, Robert Alner, at Blandford, in Dorset, on Thursday morning, on to Wincanton in the afternoon and London, as guest of a racing club, in the evening; to Market Rasen in Lincolnshire on Friday; and from the first race at Chepstow to the fourth at Sandown yesterday.

Thornton would not be human if he was not pleased that his hard work has paid off, but he is also fairly pragmatic. "I'm not doing a lot different this season," he said, "it's just that the jigsaw pieces seem to have fitted into place in my favour. I did, though, ride through the summer this year. I'd had a holiday forced on me last May, when I damaged a leg, so I decided to carry on when I got back."

Typically, that meant literally. Thornton flew into Gatwick at mid-day on a Friday, caught the 2.30 shuttle to Newcastle and rode The Whole Hog to victory in the 6.45 at Sedgefield. But the decision to take in the summer circuit meant that by the autumn, when the better horses started coming out, he had notched enough winners for a place in the top 10. Among the eyes his progress caught were those of Ferdy Murphy, trainer of the exciting novice French Holly.

Thornton said: "I won on him at Ayr in November, and kept the ride. Then I had a double at Ascot the following Saturday. Both races were televised and, believe me, that makes one hell of a difference. It gives you the exposure you need. I'm sure if Richard Dunwoody or Tony McCoy or Adrian Maguire had been available they would have been ahead of me in the queue to deputise for Timmy Murphy on See More Business at Kempton. But they weren't, and I was in the public eye. I was the one who was in the right place at the right time."

The road to glory has not been without its potholes. Leaving aside the off-putting facts that the first horse Thornton led up when learning his trade with the late Arthur Stephenson at Bishop Auckland broke its shoulder and the first one he rode in a race broke a leg when challenging for the lead 50 yards from the winning post, he suffered a real reverse three years ago.

He had won an amateur championship from Stephenson's yard, where he had started riding out as a 13-year-old schoolboy, but after the old trainer's death made the decision to move south, into the perceived mainstream, to turn professional. He joined Kim Bailey in Upper Lambourn, and his world started to fall apart.

At just short of six feet in height, Thornton hardly has a typical jockey's build (indeed, at one time rugby beckoned as an alternative sporting career; he was no mean fly-half at Barnard Castle, a school which also numbers Rob Andrew and the Underwood brothers among its alumni) and since his Pony Club days he has sat tall in the saddle.

"But once I was a pro I felt I had to change, to fit in," he said. "I pulled my irons up and tried to ride shorter and - I thought - more stylishly. But it was a disaster. Because I'm so tall it shifted my centre of gravity, threw my balance right out, and I was falling off too often. I broke my collarbone five times." Bailey suggested a split; Thornton - again typically - refused to budge. "I asked if I could stay on in the yard and prove I really could ride. Eventually I accepted that trying to be like everyone else did not work for me. I let my jerks down, and went back to being myself. The winners and my confidence returned, and now I wonder how I could have been so dense."

Another significant factor in the upturn in Thornton's fortunes is his job with Alner, who has a 60-strong string and not only favours the same sort of big chasing type as Stephenson did, but gets most of them though the same source, the shrewd Irish talent scout Tom Costello. It's a fact that makes him feel comfortable. "I've been told that one of the last things WA [Stephenson] said was that he thought I'd make it," he said. "I'm proud that I've justified his faith, especially on horses that might otherwise have been his."

The former star hunter chaser Cool Dawn, trained by Alner, will be Thornton's first ride in the Gold Cup. And the jockey has discovered that horses like the 10-year-old, and like French Holly and two-mile novice chaser Kadastrof, make the downsides of the job - the travelling, the constant wasting, the risk of injury - wholly worthwhile. "I've always loved jumping at speed; it's why we do it, it gives you a real buzz," he said. "But riding good, brave horses to win big races is something different again. I've been on a high for the past four months."