Racing: Thornton stands tall in the saddle

Andrew Longmore sees why the man who mastered Kempton is no longer a long shot
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For a sport so full of opinions, there is a strange uniformity of view about Andrew Thornton. "You won't find anyone with a bad word to say about him," said Dave Roberts, his respected agent. "His motto is 'have saddle, will travel'. He's polite and courteous and always gives you a good ride." Agents would say that, though, wouldn't they?

The purists were certainly purring at the sight of a good old-fashioned chaser being ridden like a hunter to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, the second biggest prize on the calendar. Thornton is 5ft 11in tall and as he says himself "has to put his legs somewhere". At Uttoxeter last week, the commentator thought the former amateur champion had lost his irons so gangly did he look. "A great piece of horsemanship there by Andrew Thornton," the man intoned. The weighing-room split its sides and welcomed the new John Wayne back into their midst.

At the age of 25, heading for his best season, Thornton can laugh about it now, but he has not always been so confident in his style. With his height, there are two options. One is to ride short, like Andy Turnell did or Lester Piggott, for that matter, and rely on supersensory balance; the other is to ride to a good length and risk the resemblance to a Thelwell cartoon. In his desperation to be recognised in his early years as a professional, Thornton shortened his stirrups - and kept falling off.

"I was probably riding two poles shorter than I should have done," he said. "It was all a matter of fashion really. I wanted to become more stylish, but it just wasn't me." In the end, having ridden just four winners before the Christmas of 1995, his girlfriend told him what was wrong. "I didn't listen at first. Then I dropped off another and decided to change. Eventually, I realised people put me up because I rode a good length."

The policy matured handsomely at Kempton Park on Friday as See More Business slogged through the mud to eclipse the three greys and, in the very next race, Kadastrof gave an impeccable display of front- running to win the novice chase, winners 44 and 45 of the season for Thornton. All those miles chasing two-bit winners and then pounds 53,912 worth of them fall into your pocket in half an hour. A lucky break, Thornton would say. Timmy Murphy, the stable jockey, was suspended, Tony McCoy and Mick Fitzgerald were both booked for other rides, so Thornton came in for a plum spare ride and an unexpected return on his investment in sauna hours and motorway miles.

"He kept ringing me up saying he was available," Paul Nicholls, the trainer of See More Business, said. "But he's a grand horseman and that's just what we wanted." Once Kadastrof had been declared to run at Kempton not Wetherby, Thornton was prepared to wait for the ride, which was confirmed on Sunday. Even then, only an early- morning inspection of ground like the Somme confirmed Business as usual. By such slender threads do careers hang.

Widely tipped as a future champion in his glorious amateur days, Thornton turned professional four years ago and moved from his native north to gold-paved south. The switch almost proved his undoing. "It was like starting all over again," he said. "No one knows you. You ring up for a ride and they say 'who?' But I was under no illusions." Thornton, though, quickly acquired a reputation for hard work, illustrated one spring when Hexham was abandoned. Thornton had reached Doncaster before he found out. A phone call later and he was heading south to ride for Kim Bailey at the Cheltenham Festival that afternoon.

"It's just been in my blood since I was seven or eight," he explained. "I was brought up on a farm in the North-east and was riding almost before I could walk. I was watching my weight even at school." An apprenticeship with Arthur Stephenson, a tough taskmaster, is still fondly remembered. "You could never ride the perfect race for him, but he was my mentor, he taught me everything." An eye-catching grey called One Man was a stable talent at the time. "I didn't do him, but I might have sat on him on a couple of Sundays. He was a nice horse, even then."

But Boxing Day was a day for the deep-hearted mudlarks not flashy greys. Given daylight round the outside, See More Business relished the conditions. "Down the far side, Brad [Graham Bradley on Suny Bay] shouted: 'steady lads, we're going quick enough'. So I thought I'd better kick on here." One Man faltered, then Suny Bay. "Even when A P [McCoy] came upsides at the last, I knew mine would keep galloping." Then it was back into the car and off to Sedgefield. Not for more rides, for once. The man will even drive the length of the country for a party.