No winner , but the broadest smile at Exeter yesterday belonged to Choc Thornton after a comeback that defied medical opinion. After a horror fall in July that snapped three of the four ligaments in his right knee, doctors predicted as much as a year on the sidelines for the jockey. But it was only five months to the day later that he threw that pesky leg over hurdler Causeway King and came within a length and a half of a fairytale victory.
Thornton is the first to admit that he has never worshipped at the altar of physical fitness with the same obsession as some in the weighing room. But he admitted yesterday that the seriousness of his injury, caused when his mount Hell's Bay crashed through the wing of an obstacle, and the prospect of missing a season, concentrated his mind in that department. "When they told me it could be 12 months off, I cried," he said. "But it made me realise just how much I wanted to be riding and I decided to work on six and get on with it. To come back in exactly five is just brilliant."
But for the adverse weather, Thornton would have been back sooner, having been given the all-clear last week. His recuperation included two bouts of surgery and sessions with the Manchester United physiotherapists, for whom knee problems are meat and drink. "It was the sort of injury I had to work, to load as much as possible," he said, "and I can't speak highly enough of everyone who helped."
Causeway King, who blazed the trail for two miles yesterday and was caught only after the last hurdle, thoroughly tested Thornton's physique and resolve, including one heart-stopping moment at the second flight, when he briefly jinked towards the wing.
"The leg feels fine but I'm having a bit of a blow," said the rider afterwards. "I've been riding out for a few weeks, but there's no substitute for race-riding. After two or three more rides I'll be spot-on and although the weather is frustrating, maybe it won't hurt to ease back one day on, one day off."
Causeway King's bunny-hop over the last handed the initiative to the 22-1 outsider Salontyre, ridden by novice rider Isabel Tompsett, a practising vet. And it seems Thornton's chauvinism, however good-natured, is as healthy as his limbs. "For a moment I thought I might come back with a winner," he added, "and then I get done by a girl."
Full credit was given by all present to the Exeter officials for managing to stage the meeting, which was given the go-ahead only after a mid-morning inspection. There is no jumps racing today, and even the so-called all-weather track at Lingfield is subject to a morning inspection. "It takes four hours to get the covers down," said course clerk Simon Claisse. "You're talking about an area the size of 25 football pitches. But in our favour is that our soil temperature is still above four degrees."
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Avonrose (2.00 Lingfield)
All-weather debutante who has acquitted herself well on turf, in much better company than today's.
Soviet Spring (12.30 Lingfield)
Drops back in trip after disappointing as favourite last time, when he paid for over-keenness in the closing stages.
One to watch
Progressive mare Call Me A Legend (A King) blew the cobwebs away on her seasonal debut last month, only her second run over fences after an easy victory 10 months before.
Where the money's going
Yesterday's Exeter marathon winner C'monthehammers has been cut from 40-1 from 66-1 for the Welsh National with sponsors Coral.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Upthemsteps (3.20 Southwell).