Thornton in the saddle for Festival

Former leading jockey at Cheltenham ready to mount strong challenge to Walsh

Thirteen days to go, and some have got lucky already. Robert Thornton has recovered splendidly from a back injury, has noted with satisfaction the return to form of the Alan King stable for which he rides and has picked up not just one, but two, highly enviable spare mounts at the Cheltenham Festival. The market for the meeting's top jockey is a spirited one and although Ruby Walsh, whose record seven winners last year gave him his third title in four years, is odds-on, there may be worse bets as part of the build-up to the most frenetically anticipated week in the racing calendar than Thornton.

Although he drew a blank last March, it was he who interrupted Walsh's sequence three years ago and in the betting-without-the-favourite list of Stan James is a tempting enough 11-2, third choice behind Barry Geraghty and Tony McCoy.

King plans a team of around 20 for the Festival, including such as Medermit, Bensalem and The Betchworth Kid. The two plums Thornton has plucked from other prolifically fruiting trees are the two-mile ace Twist Magic for Paul Nicholls and top novice chaser Somersby for Henrietta Knight.

Twist Magic steps out two weeks today in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the meeting's second-day highlight, with Walsh on the Nicholls stable's first string, Master Minded. Thornton has ridden the eight-year-old once before, though with not altogether happy results; when the pair came down two fences from home when poised to challenge Master Minded in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown 15 months ago, Neither has the gelding proved himself entirely at home at Cheltenham, having failed to get round twice in three visits there.

But Thornton is unworried by what has happened in the past. "We were going very well when we fell," he said yesterday, "and it was just unfortunate he knuckled over when he landed. Up to that he'd given me a fantastic feel."

Twist Magic can be hot and difficult in his mind, but 31-year-old Thornton, son of a Leicestershire huntsman, has cool hands. And the gelding has been in the form of his life this season, winning his last two races. "At the start he was probably a slightly forgotten horse," said Thornton, "but there's now no doubt that he's a top-class two-mile chaser."

Somersby is one of the leading young lights in the same division, second favourite, behind Captain Cee Bee, for the Arkle Trophy on the opening day of the meeting. Thornton has yet to jump a fence on the six-year-old, who has won both starts over fences, but will do so in the near future after riding him in routine exercise last week at Knight's base near Wantage. "He looked very good when he won at Sandown, a pleasure to watch," he said, "and I loved the feel of him when I sat on him."

Thornton at least knows the opposition. "I rode Captain Cee Bee to win at Cheltenham two years ago," he added, "and Somersby looks as if he's the one who can mix it with him."

Walsh, who has the might of both Nicholls and Willie Mullins, the leading trainers in Britain and Ireland, to call on, is the top Festival jockey currently riding, on 24 victories, and needs only one more to draw level with the all-time leader, Pat Taaffe. He looks certain to do so, and more, but Thornton knows as well as any the uncertainty of their perilous profession.

His victory at Leicester yesterday on Blazing Bailey was the sixth in a week for the King stable. "It's coming together nicely," he said.

Turf account: Sue Montgomery


Megasue (2.20 Bangor) Responded to positive tactics last time with a wide-margin success, looks progressive and may be able to carry a penalty against her own sex.

Next Best

You're So Vain (2.10 Folkestone) Returns to the scene of his bumper win and may be better than he showed first time out over hurdles in a much better race, when he ran rather too freely for his own good.

One to watch

Hoback Junction (L Wadham) Built on his debut hurdles effort when runner-up at Plumpton on Monday and should be seen to even better effect when going further than two miles.

Where the money's going

The defection of long-time favourite Mille Chief has blown life into the Triumph Hurdle betting and the latest to attract attention, 12-1 from 14-1 with Paddy Power, is ex-French Soldatino, a ready winner at Kempton at the weekend on his British debut.

Chris McGrath's Nap

Desert Recluse (3.30 Wolverhampton)