ONE down, two to go. Jockey Andrew Thornton’s festive season got off to the best possible start when 28-1 outsider Barton Gift provided him with his 998th UK winner at Bangor on Thursday.
Today the ever-enthusiastic 44-year-old will be hunting in North Yorkshire before a family Christmas with his wife Yvonne and their young son Harry, keeping a careful eye on his calorie intake.
The more he eats, the more weight he will have to lose when the former Gold Cup-winning jockey arrives in deepest Somerset on Boxing Day for seven rides, including quietly-fancied Somchine and Dawson City, at Wincanton.
“At least the roads will be clear. That’s the positive,” contemplates Thornton ahead of the 280-mile journey that will begin at 5am. “Four and a half hours without a stop. First race at 12.30pm.
“If I’ve got a lighter weight, I need to be there for 10am and go running round the track. It’s the easiest way to get my metabolism going – I might only use the sauna to lose the final pound. On Boxing Day, you try to find your one best ride and work round that. Hopefully I’ve two decent shouts.”
It is fair to say that Thornton, who lives at Rainton, near Thirsk, had hoped to be a member of the cherished 1,000-winner club by now. As the landmark has inched closer, successes have been even more elusive.
A cricketer stuck in the nervous 90s would concur.
“It is what it is,” says the rider. “I had three winners in seven days in the summer. Then things dry up. Then I break my collarbone and ribs.
“I tend to lose more races than I gain at this stage of my career. You just get on with it. Who knows when I’ll get the two winners I need. It might be Boxing Day, the day after or whenever. What will be, will be. I’ve enjoyed the journey and I’m continuing to enjoy it. There’ll be a day when I won’t be doing it.”
Typically self-deprecating, Thornton has embraced the level of interest in his quest for 1,000 winners – every success, so far, has been hard-earned in an era dominated by Sir AP McCoy and Richard Johnson who, between them, have recorded in excess of 7,000 victories.
Though better medical support, nutritional advice and weight management have helped jump riders to extend their careers into their early forties, it also means that the current generation of young jockeys has never been fitter – or, in fact, more professional – in their outlook.
Yet there was one famous occasion when Thornton did get the better of that man McCoy – the 1997 King George VI Chase at Kempton when See More Business held off Challenger Du Luc in a thriller.
Thornton remembers it well. He was about fourth choice because Richard Dunwoody, Mick Fitzgerald and Adrian Maguire all had other commitments.
He was desperate to give his horse clear sight of his fences and he was relieved when he glimpsed Challenger Du Luc’s blinkers out of his left eye: “I knew he would find a big fat zero on the run in.” So it proved.
Thornton’s luck did not end there. When See More Business was effectively taken out of the following year’s Gold Cup as a result of McCoy’s mount Cyborgo being pulled up abruptly, the jockey recorded an unlikely victory on Cool Dawn in the colours of TalkTalk boss Dido Harding.
Understandably, he cannot wait for this year’s King George, which is being billed as a duel between Colin Tizzard’s stablemates Cue Card, the 2015 victor in a photo-finish, and the precocious novice Thistlecrack, who will be competing over the larger obstacles for only the fourth time.
“Intriguing,” says a contemplative Thornton when asked which horse he would prefer to ride if he received the call from the in-form Dorset trainer.
“I wouldn’t mind being on either. The plus for Thistlecrack and Tom Scudamore is that it isn’t a big field.
“Josses Hill won’t be hanging about and he’ll be going half a gear quicker than in his novice races. If you were to put a gun to my head, I’d say Cue Card. He’s been there, done it and is as good as ever judging by how he won the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month.”
While the King George is the undoubted highlight of a Christmas programme that includes Wetherby’s two-day Rowland Meyrick meeting, and the Welsh National at Chepstow on Tuesday, Thornton laments the fact that there are just two NH meetings on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. “I can’t understand why there isn’t more jumping between Christmas and New Year,” he added. “Why aren’t there four meetings every day? There used to be 11 fixtures on Boxing Day. Now we’re down to seven (jumps).
“They can put an extra Flat meeting on at the drop of a hat – why not National Hunt? There should be more. It’s the holiday period – people have time to go racing and enjoy the sport. We should be doing more. Football does. There’s no reason why the programme book can’t be changed.”