IT’S hard not to wince as Andrew Thornton chronicles his latest battle scars as he begins the 280-mile drive back to North Yorkshire after a despairing day in deepest Somerset.
“I’ve got a haematoma on my thigh, a haematoma on my backside. I got a kick in the calf and my back hurts,” he says. “I’m happy. I’m in one piece, but I’m bloody sore.
“I’ve been better. My first ride was going well and fell inexplicably at the 12th and brought down another horse who gave me a good kicking. The next was going well, nearly fell three out, nearly fell two out and finished second.
“It was a frustrating day – but you can’t change the past. Once upon a time, I would have beaten myself up. In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing. You’ve got to be philosophical.
The ups and downs of a jockey...”
It was not supposed to be like this. Thornton, who lives at Rainton near Thirsk with his wife Yvonne Dennis, a florist, and their young son Harry, travelled to Wincanton in the hope of inching closer to a landmark 1,000th winner.
On the 988-winner mark following Saucysioux’s triumph at the Sussex track of Plumpton on Monday – Thornton will drive anywhere for a ride – his angst is self-evident. At 43 years of age, he is now National Hunt racing’s senior statesman. Only Brian Harding is older, by a month, and this November will mark the 25th anniversary of Thornton’s first win when he rode Wrekin Hill to victory at Sedgefield for the late Arthur Stephenson.
One of the most consistent riders of his generation, he has never ridden a century of winners in a single season – his best was 86 in 2003-04 – and a broken arm suffered last summer left him on the sidelines for three months before he could begin to re-establish himself.
It is not lost on him that he was riding against the likes of Brendan Powell in the early 1990s whose son – Brendan junior – won the Somerset National when Thornton’s mount Dawson City blundered on the home straight. He consoles himself by describing his age as “35 plus VAT”.
While Thornton is well accustomed to being asked how many more victories he needs to reach his 1,000th success, his more pressing concern is adjusting one of many ice-packs in his car so that he can drive with a relative degree of comfort. There’s only another 250 miles to go, but none of the pampering that Premier League footballers receive after a minor strain.
“I’m perched on the cheek of my left butt because the ice is on the other one,” he tells The Yorkshire Post matter-of-factly. “I think everyone is doing the counting for me. Up until this morning, I was really enjoying it. I’m not quite enjoying it as much this afternoon.
“That was my first fall for the best part of two months. I had gone 60 rides without one. You think you’re getting the hang of this game and then there is that reality check when a horse you hope will win doesn’t get it right. I’ll tell you, it was a good kicking.”
As the Seamus Mullins-trained Alder Mairi came to grief, the momentum of the fall saw Thornton’s body roll at least three times along the rain-sodden turf like an Olympic gymnast’s tumble-turns before coming to a halt.
However, as Thornton’s survival instincts kicked in and he instinctively rolled himself up like a small child in order to protect his battered body, he brought down the pursuing Gores Island and needed several seconds to catch his breath as the riderless horses galloped away from the melee. The checklist of bones is almost routine after 25 years in the saddle. “That’s moving. That’s not too bad. That’s moving,” a war-weary Thornton told himself before getting to his feet gingerly and raring to ride the luckless Dawson City in the very next race.
They had just hit the front before a calamitous mistake three out was followed by another blunder at the next fence. By then, horse and rider had little chance of overhauling the aforementioned Powell on the admirable but slightly fortuitous Golden Chieftain.
It’s not always been like this. Thornton, whose love of riding was inspired by the Hurworth Hunt Pony Club in North Yorkshire and the excitement of team chasing competitions, enjoyed much big race success in the 1990s with horses like Ferdy Murphy’s Grade One-winning hurdler French Holly and then a stirring victory in the blue riband 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup on the unfancied Cool Dawn which remains, to this day, the most significant of his career.
“Winning a Gold Cup gives you a lot of credibility,” says Thornton, who has developed an almost unique riding style of his own because he is unnaturally tall to be a jockey. “You’re still introduced as a Gold Cup-winning jockey and there are only 90 or so people who have ever been able to say that. It’s kudos. I look back and think how lucky I was to be in the right place, at the right time, when I won a Gold Cup on a 25-1 shot bought as a lady’s point-to-pointer (the owner Dido Harding is the boss of TalkTalk). The irony was that I had won the King George at Kempton on See More Business and he was taken out when Cyborgo pulled up suddenly. Put it this way, it took one of my main rivals out of the equation and I had luck on my side.”
If his career permits, Thornton would love to win a Grand National.
He was fourth in 1998 on St Mellion Fairway, the year Earth Summit was the gutsiest of all in the mud, and his earliest racing memory remains the tear-jerking 1981 renewal at Aintree when Bob Champion conquered cancer, and Aldaniti serious injury, to deny the legendary amateur John Thorne aboard the fast-finishing Spartan Missile. He can still hear the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s spine-tingling commentary as the race reached its denouement – “here comes 54-year-old John Thorne” – and says the evocative words provide inspiration on his own journey towards 1,000 winners.
Thornton and Champion, from Gainsborough, are good friends while the rider can count on the support of trainer Caroline Bailey whose father Dick Saunders became the oldest ever National-winning rider when winning the 1982 race on Grittar as a 48-year-old amateur.
“There’s hope yet,” says Thornton after recovering sufficiently for two rides at Market Rasen yesterday, including a third, before a cross country odyssey which takes him back to Somerset today for Taunton’s meeting, to the Sussex track of Fontwell tomorrow and Kempton, under Heathrow Airport’s flight path, on Monday.
His persistence, the great highs and painful lows, also put into the context the phenomenal career of AP McCoy who rode 4,000 winners in just over 20 years before hanging up his saddle last year.
“As long as I can get up after each fall, and as long as I can drive home, the rest will take care of itself,” adds Thornton whose freelance status, and great experience, saw him booked by eight different trainers for his last 10 rides.
“I’m not taking the 1,000 winners for granted. One winner at a time.
“I’m not putting the cart before the horse. After today, I could have been out for three months and you would have been asking if I was coming back.
“You do not take anything for granted.”
Especially in racing.