AGE IS only a number to Yorkshire-based jump jockey Andrew Thornton as he approaches the milestone of his 1,000th career winner.
He is only 35 victories shy of the landmark and hopes Big Generator – trained by the in-form Caroline Bailey – can supply him with his 966th success on the opening day of Wetherby’s 2014-15 National Hunt season.
“I’ve had a good start to the year, it’s nice to get a couple of winners and hopefully people take notice. I keep chipping away,” Thornton told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“There’s 35 to go. Age, it’s a psychological thing. Because I went public and said that I wanted to ride 1,000 winners, a lot of people stopped talking about my retirement. You get to a certain age and people want to retire you. I’m still enjoying it. It’s my job and the bottle is still in tack. You are a long time retired.”
Thornton, now one of the weighing room’s elder statesmen, is enjoying a glorious twilight to a meritorious career which began in November 1991 when he rode Wrekin Hill to victory at Sedgefield, his local track, for the late, great Arthur Stephenson.
He now lives at Rainton near Thirsk after becoming married to florist Yvonne Dennis on September 14 – the 80 guests had been invited to the christening of the couple’s son Harry and were surprised when the vicar of St Nicholas Church, Huthwaite, stood at the altar and said: “I have an announcement to make – in my hand I have a wedding licence.”
There then followed a joint wedding and christening ceremony, heart-warming reminiscences about Thornton’s career, which included his 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup triumph on the never-to-be-forgotten Cool Dawn, and the shortest of honeymoons because of his riding commitments two days later at a less than glamorous Sedgefield.
His determination to reach the 1,000-winner mark, one of jump racing’s definitions of greatness, makes the achievements of the one and only AP McCoy all the more remarkable.
The 19-times champion jockey, who is in action today at the West Yorkshire track following a short injury lay-off, has won more than 4,000 races in the same period of time and has not ruled out the possibility – fitness permitting – of riding an improbable 300 winners in the current campaign.
The 40-year-old’s resolution is likely to be a recurring theme of the National Hunt season while Thornton cannot wait to watch steeplechasing superstar Sprinter Sacre return to the track, possibly in Sandown’s Tingle Creek Chase in early December, and take on the admirable Sire De Grugy, the reigning Queen Mother Champion Chase title holder.
“You want to see competition – competition and a healthy rivalry is good for sport,” says Stockton-on-Tees-born Thornton, who nominates Cool Dawn and Ferdy Murphy’s French Holly as the two best horses that he has ridden.
“My first three winners were all over fences. I can remember them like yesterday. I started watching the Grand National in the early 1980s with Aldaniti and Grittar. The great WA Stephenson in County Durham was my first trainer. I started there when I was at school. I thought the world of him. He was firm but fair.
“You never rode a perfect race, there was always something he picked you up on – some improvement that could be made.
“Captain Tim Forster was the same. He was at Catterick in the Army and he said you were not a proper jump jockey until you had ridden a double at Hexham.
“I rode a double, one over hurdles and a steeplechase, and told him. He said ‘No, no, no. I mean a proper double – both over fences’. Hurdles didn’t count to him, but the Captain did give me my first Cheltenham Festival winner when Maamur won the William Hill Chase in 1996.”
The biggest difference, says Thornton, is the medical advances that have helped to prolong the careers of so many jockeys – whether it be nutritional advice or organisations like the Injured Jockeys’ Fund and Professional Jockeys’ Association paying for physiotherapy cover at racecourses and so on.
“I’ve had my fair share of injuries. I’ve been under the surgeon’s knife nine times and 16 broken bones. It happens,” added the well-travelled Thornton, who will be riding this season for Northamptonshire-based Bailey and Wiltshire trainer Seamus Mullins.
“You ride with cracked ribs and hairline fractures. You just get on with it. The doctor tells you that you will be off for three weeks and you try to get back inside 10 days. When you can’t do that any more, that’s when you give up. The hardest thing for jockeys is not the injuries, it’s when you pile on the pounds and have to get the weight back down. I have to work it at it every day. If you don’t work hard, there are lots of young whipper-snappers chomping away at your heels.
“Keeping fit is number one and it becomes easier as you become more experienced and disciplined. In your 20s, your weight yo-yos a lot. You are all trying to do four or five pounds less than you are comfortable doing. A lot of riders retire earlier than they should because they can’t learn to keep their weight under control.
“But the biggest thing that has increased a jockey’s career is the physio. Without them, the senior jockeys – AP McCoy, Richard Johnson, Noel Fehily and others – would not be around and still at the top of their game.”
The same is true of the ageless Andrew Thornton as he confronts the physical – and mental – obstacles that stand between him and racing history.