ANDREW Thornton has always had a nice line in self-deprecation. Yet he means it when he says he “was about sixth choice” to ride the then unheralded See More Business in the 1997 King George Chase – jump racing’s traditional Christmas highlight.
The list of top-class horsemen with other rides in the Kempton contest reads like a who’s who of racing as Thornton reels off the names: Richard Dunwoody, Graham Bradley, Adrian Maguire, Carl Llewellyn, Mick Fitzgerald and a young AP McCoy.
And the mercurial Timmy Murphy who was banned, hence the pre-Christmas phone call from trainer Paul Nicholls to Thornton who was relaxing with his family in North Yorkshire as final declarations were made.
“I got the call off Paul,” the weighing room veteran told The Yorkshire Post. “I remember saying ‘Do you want me to come down and school him?’ He said ‘I’m happy if you’re happy’. Grand.
“I’d had 40 or 50 winners and I was having a great run. See More Business’s jumping was a little bit of an issue. He hadn’t hit the heights, but he was only seven.”
In this respect, Thornton – who rode his 1,000th career victory on Boxing Day last year before injuring his ligaments dismounting from the victorious horse at Wincanton – wasn’t under much pressure as he prepared to ride the future champion for the first time.
“The instructions were simple – give him plenty of light, let him warm up and don’t ask too many questions,” said Thornton who was concerned by the presence of the French raider Djeddah on his outer.
However, when Thierry Doumen’s mount made an error at the first, See More Business and Thornton, a jockey who rides with contact lenses, had clear sight of the fences which came at a quick tempo.
It had been a curious campaign – horses from the powerhouse yards had not been running to their true form and the fast pace began to take its toll on the second circuit.
Dual winner One Man was beaten by the fourth last in his hat-trick quest while Rough Quest – the previous year’s Grand National hero – lacked his usual ebullience.
Turning for home, See More Business and the Graham Bradley-ridden Suny Bay were disputing the lead as they began to exchange a few words.
Thornton remembers it well. As he cruised up alongside National runner-up Suny Bay, Wetherby-born Bradley looked over and said: “Aye lad, just a little breather.”
Thornton wasn’t falling for such gamesmanship. “As soon as those words came out of his mouth, I gave my horse a little click ‘Come on lad, we’re on’,” he said.
His instincts were correct – Suny Bay had nothing left. Over the third last, Thornton and See More Business met the penultimate obstacle on a good stride before sensing a pair of “big dirty blinkers” on his outer.
“I knew it was Challenger Du Luc and AP (McCoy), and I knew he wouldn’t find after the last,” said Thornton, whose intuition was, once again, spot on.
“I rode down to the last like it wasn’t there. I threw my horse at it and he absolutely winged it. He landed running and I wasn’t worried about what the others were doing...I had won.”
Thornton’s memories of the day are fonder than those of Timmy Murphy, the jockey who he replaced on the big day.
Not only did Murphy miss out on the King George, but he was aboard See More Business when the chaser was controversially taken out of the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup as Cyborgo was pulled up abruptly.
The beneficiary? Andrew Thornton who went on to land the blue riband race on Cool Dawn.
And it didn’t end here – Murphy’s misfortune meant it was Thornton in the saddle when See More Business, one of the great warriors who did land the 1999 Gold Cup, won a stirring renewal of the 2002 Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow shortly before being retired by owner Paul Barber.
“I owe Timmy. If he wasn’t banned, I would never have got the ride. And, if it wasn’t for him. I wouldn’t have won a Gold Cup. Or Rehearsal Chase,” adds Thornton with cunning glee.
“Three big races. He doesn’t like being reminded of it, but I was in the right place at the right time.”