He identified a race at Uttoxeter for the modest horse, convinced trainer Seamus Mullins to run the horse – and then justified his faith with a ride which belied his 45 years.
Though the North Yorkshire rider has a Cheltenham Gold Cup and King George Chase on his CV thanks to Cool Dawn and See More Business, this win meant just as much.
Not only were parents David and Jean, wife Yvonne and young son Harry present, but he was cheered back to the winner’s enclosure by his fellow jockeys, and weighing room valets, before being dowsed in ice water. Drenched, Gavin Sheehan then threw another bucket at Thornton for good measure. “I would have needed some windscreen wipers on my contact lenses to identify him,” he joked.
Typically, Thornton then rode in two more races – he was narrowly beaten on Manhattan Spring when fatigue caught up with horse (and rider) – before telling The Yorkshire Post about his debt to racing as he pursues a broadcasting career.
First, his early mentor Arthur Stephenson – universally known as WA – who took the raw rider under his wing at his County Durham stables in the late 1980s. “I was very fortunate to ride for someone who liked to make an amateur a champion,” said Thornton. “He put me on good horses and good jumpers – I think I only had one fall in my first 80 rides. He was a big believer in confidence. Good horses help make good jockeys.”
Next the horses and Thornton, who lives near Ripon, singles out French Holly, who was trained at West Witton by Ferdy Murphy. Their eight victories included three at Grade One level – including the 1998 Royal & Sunalliance Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
“I had over 1,000 winners – and the most I ever rode on any one horse was eight,” he said. “He was made for me. Eighteen hands – six foot six inches in our terms. A little ungainly but the heart of a lion. A gentle giant. If you mentioned French Holly in racing, everyone knew him. He finished behind Aidan O’Brien’s Istabraq on countless occasions. Of the modern era, you put him in the same bracket as Peter Easterby’s Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon.”
Then serendipity – a constant presence in a sport where Rudyard Kipling’s two impostors of “triumph and disaster” are invariably intertwined. Thornton concedes that he would not have ridden 1,000 winners if his one-time house-mate Jimmy Derham had not broken his neck in a career-ending fall at Uttoxeter some years ago.
His misfortune enabled Thornton to forge an alliance with Mullins and, fittingly, Derham returned to Uttoxeter on Wednesday for the first time since his fall to be part of the retirement celebrations.
“He came to racing quite late in his career. He was in his 20s and making a good fist of it. He was a bloody good jockey. One man’s bad luck is another man’s good luck,” said Thornton. “You can’t deny it and you just don’t dwell on it.”
Thornton jokes that he enjoyed so much longevity because he had so much time off to recover from injury, notably when injuring his cruciate ligament dismounting at Wincanton on Boxing Day, 2016 after riding his long-awaited 1,000th winner.
He also stayed at the top despite having poor eyesight that necessitated contact lenses. “At WA’s, I was known as Eddie The Eagle because I used to wear my glasses under my riding helmet,” says Thornton, who was then given the nickname ‘Lenzio’ while playing football during Italia 90.
“There were a couple of occasions when I left them in the car as I was getting a lift. The first time I won the Peter Cazalet Chase at Sandown on Lancastrian Jet for Henry Daly. He said ‘leave them off more often because the horse had never jumped better’. The second time I rode a double at Towcester.”
In many respects, the best tribute to Thornton, an Injured Jockeys Fund trustee, were the tributes by his weighing room colleagues, friends and rivals because it showed the esteem in which was held.
A mentor to many, his parting advice to young jockeys stems from a quarter of a century’s experience – and willingness to travel anywhere for a ride. “Enjoy it, head down, hard work. You only get out what you put in,” he says. “Stay loyal. It’s very easy to jump ship when you’re not getting the opportunities. You have to put down foundations. You can’t expect to get things at the drop of a hat. Don’t be too hasty. Play the long game.”
Just like Andrew Thornton.