James Lawton: Cheltenham's tales of guts and glory will dispel stale air left by latest football row

At the last rough calculation Thornton’s falls were approaching 400 and he had suffered 42 serious injuries

It was a ferocious debate between Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez and this was after some considerable time had been spent discussing who had snubbed whom.

The real issue, it turned out, was which set of players had suffered the greater physical trial on their way to Sunday's unresolved FA Cup tie, those of Manchester United while surrendering their place in the Champions League to Real Madrid or Chelsea trailing home from Eastern Europe two days later after a rather lousy performance in the Europa League.

Pathetic, of course, but it could only increase the sharp sense of relief, not to say exhilaration of all those heading for the opening of the Cheltenham Festival today. Indeed, there has to be almost a sense of inter-planetary travel because if one world is heaped ever higher in self-indulgence and rancour, the other, this one in the Gloucestershire valley which has for so long offered the epic fortitude of brave horses and brave men, retains an atmosphere forbidding to all but the most extraordinary levels of competitive character.

Ferguson said his full-backs were "knackered". It was a diagnosis he might have considered at least slightly absurd had he checked with the trainer Alan King, who this week is denied the normally remorseless services of his stable jockey Robert "Choc" Thornton.

Both King and Thornton were quite optimistic that he would be in the saddle this week despite a recent jarring fall at Southwell. It was an innocuous mishap, Thornton explained to the doctors, though unfortunately one horse had rather "steamrollered" him from behind. The point was, though, he had picked up a few bruises which was hardly enough to keep him out of the ultimate week of a jump jockey's life.

The doctors, not for the first time in the 34-year-old Thornton's tumultuous career, demurred. The X-rays painted a rather different story to the one he had presented with a shrug and a cheerful grimace. Thornton had broken three vertebrae and also an arm which was already plated from a previous spill.

He will miss Cheltenham and Aintree and he is cursing his fate, though it was one which down the years he has been obliged to accept is never going to be much more than a split second away.

He had his first fall when he was eight. He came off while riding alongside his father, a notable huntsman. At the last rough calculation the number of Thornton's falls was approaching 400. He broke his left fibula when he was 17, the first of 42 serious injuries. They include nine broken collar bones and four years ago, after crashing down at Newbury he required 22 stitches in his mouth and lips and the repair of three teeth and the replacement of two others.

At this point it is possibly worth mentioning that Thornton is a formidable professional, not only in unbreakable nerve but of sufficient technique to have won 15 times at National Hunt racing's greatest meeting.

The fact is that as this week's dramas unfold, Thornton is not the exceptionally ill-starred victim but simply a representative one whose painful role could easily have been played by the men who are likely to once again dominate the race to be the meeting's most successful jockey, Barry Geraghty (5-4), Ruby Walsh (3-2), Tony McCoy (4-1), Davey Russell (16-1) and Jason McGuire (20-1). Thornton would have been on the fringe of the contenders but for his Southwell ambush. In 2007 he intruded into Walsh's extraordinary run of five triumphs in six years. He brought home four winners with the classic urgency of his calling, one that is always informed by the possibility that disaster is just one false stride, one ill-timed jump away.

Of course there is a vocational intensity here that separates the jump jockeys from most breeds of sportsmen and women and if we need any further evidence of this there is plenty in the story of Jessica Westwood, who had her dreams of a successful riding career ruined by a fall which has required a long and difficult recovery from back and brain injury. Now at 21, she brings Monkerty Tunkerty to Cheltenham this week in pursuit of a handicap prize, having had hopes of training the horse to success in last year's Foxhunter Chase before seeing it suffer a bruised foot a few days before the race.

She is a slight, buoyant figure beside the big-gun trainers Paul Nichols and Nicky Henderson and the great Irish invader Willie Mullins. Yet where better to look for the essential spirit of an event – which however it swells in corporate power from year to year retains a simple compulsion – than in the will of a young woman who has refused to be cowed by the most formidable odds.

Thornton's attempt to talk and swagger his way into the action is one dramatic example of the allure to which so many will fall victim this week. But then there are so many others.

There are times when arguably the greatest jump rider of them all, Tony McCoy, carries a haunted expression to the course. His need to win here is perhaps his most ferocious ambition among all the others that have driven him so seamlessly to so many jockey championships and when he does it from time to time, when he drives his mount up the rising ground, the resulting clamour seems be as much relief as acclaim.

On such occasions you remember this is also a man who treats the most serious injury not so much as an affliction as an impertinence, something which drives him to ice chambers and other acts of other-worldly will. And if it isn't McCoy, what odds that it will be the silky horseman Ruby Walsh. They are extremely low indeed when he and some superior mount present themselves so unerringly in a winning position that the tribute to Lester Piggott by the great older trainer Sir Noel Murless is evoked.

"What happens between Lester and a horse is a mystery known only to Lester, the horse and God," said the trainer.

Of course there was no mystery, only a poignant reality, when this time last year Walsh asked several questions of Kauto Star and found all of the answers to be unsatisfactory. So, of course, he brought him home, with still a circuit to go, the sublime horse we will miss so acutely this week. He said that after all the brilliance he had carried into our lives, it was necessary to know precisely when he was in no position to give anything more.

It means that on Friday in the Gold Cup there will be something missing in our hearts. It will be the possibility of wonderment. In place of Kauto Star we will have the pugnacious challenges of Bob's Worth (Henderson), Sir Der Champs (Mullins) and Silviniaco Conti (Nicholls) and maybe the resurrection of former winner Long Run. Whatever we have, it will not be any sense of diminished horizons, and certainly not tomorrow when the new superstar Sprinter Sacre preens his way to the start of the Champion Chase.

We can't have a Kauto Star every year, we cannot expect to so regularly commune with the most extraordinary and moving achievement, but there is always one certainty. It is about the truth of the effort, the recurring thrill which comes with the most brilliant nerve and courage. "Choc" Thornton, we are assured, will be back, but then what would stop him? Possibly an elephant gun but you would need to examine the odds quite carefully.

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