14 March 2004

No one would think of accusing Andrew Thornton of jumping clean out of the saddle as Sean Fox allegedly did at Fontwell on Monday. For a start, Thornton rides such a deep cowboy style that he would never get his long legs over the side. But, much more important, no one could imagine him even thinking of such a thing. In this pre-Cheltenham week, he shone like a good deed in an increasingly naughty world.

On Thursday, Thornton rides Sir Rembrandt against Best Mate in the Gold Cup, his original ride, Kingscliff, having been withdrawn yesterday with a recurrence of his shoulder problem. But six weeks ago he didn’t look like making Cheltenham. A tiring chaser called Manawanui shoulder charged the last fence at Kempton and, as the gelding crashed sideways and down, it flung Thornton out with violence enough to snap his left arm above the wrist. “I already had a plate in from breaking it a bit higher up at Wincanton in December 2002,” Thornton said at Chepstow last week, “so the day after Kempton Dr Michael Foy put in a new one lower down with a new set of screws, although three of them fitted in the old holes.”

The above statement was accompanied by the baring of a wickedly scarred forearm and a rather ghoulish twinkle in the slightly bulging contact-lensed eyes. “I think,” Thornton said as if breaking one’s arm was the ideal build-up to the three most important days of the season, “that I have had a great preparation. I feel refreshed and ready. With racing 12 months of the year you need a break and you must make the most of it. I went out to Mijas for a week and now feel terrific.”

Mijas? Surely not the same Spanish flesh-pot where Kieren Fallon allegedly fell from grace last Friday night? “Oh no,” said 31-year-old Thornton, who today lies third in the table in his 13th professional season, “I was up in the hills away from all that. I did a bit of walking, running, swimming and had a great time.”

The echo of the Fallon case brought back racing’s waking nightmare of Dick Francis made life. On the way to Chepstow I had penned an editorial for the Racing Post. “Who would have thought,” it began, “that jockeys could be held in even lower esteem than journalists?” Having been proud to be a member of both professions, I was in desperate need for some measure of reassurance. At last I had found it.

For while Thornton is businessman enough to be investing any winnings in property here and in America, he is also a sportsman down to his size nine boots. At Barnard Castle School, Rob Andrew’s alma mater, he turned down a chance to tour South Africa with the first team as a 16-year-old because he was already taken with the racing bug at Arthur Stephenson’s legendary West Auckland stables. Thornton may have become champion amateur but when he turned professional his suddenly uncertain skills made him as unsuccessful as his 5ft 11in frame kept (and still keeps) him hungry.

“I was riding too short,” he recalled in well-worn memory, (although a fair bit longer than Sean Fox’s ludicrously perched up position on Monday), “and kept falling off. When I dropped my length again I got my confidence back. I may not look as tidy as the others but I can make them go. I won’t be worrying about anybody else at Cheltenham. Winning there [which he first did in 1993 before taking the Gold Cup on the 25-1 outsider Cool Dawn three years later] is for us like touching down at Twickenham or scoring a goal at Wembley.”

Cool Dawn came from the same converted Dorset dairy farm where Robert Alner and his wife Sally are readying Sir Rembrandt. “Cool Dawn ran a lot worse at Wincanton before his Gold Cup than Sir Rembrandt ever did at Newbury last time,” Thornton said of the big horse’s lacklustre defeat in February. “Sir Rembrandt looked after himself because he wasn’t right, just as Best Mate did at Huntingdon. He has been treated for his muscle problem and, although all of us will keep saying that, of course, we are only riding for second place, don’t think for a second we believe it. By heck I don’t.”

Talk of Sir Rembrandt’s problems reminds you of the Ascot alarm which caused Kingscliffe’s original trouble, the left rein breaking at the third of 20 scheduled fences, sending the big horse broadside into the inside rail and leaving Thornton with only his own long legs to guide him and his giant partner round the remainder of the three-mile journey. His upright stance and deep balance may make him something of a policeman lookalike, but probably only he among the jockeys could have accomplished that Ascot exploit.

At Chepstow an 80th seasonal winner (equalling his best total) on the chestnut Mr McSnappy showed the jockey’s dash, which he adds to an almost show-jumping approach, has been in no way affected by his accident and lay-off. Coolness under pressure will be needed this week and Thornton sets an admirable example on the field or off it.

“Wherever there is money there is talk of conspiracy,” he said in response to the fevered reaction to current dramas and the problems of betting exchanges increasing the incentive to lose. “Racing is a business, and no different from the Stock Exchange or any other business there will always be some fishy things going on. But we are more tightly policed than we have ever been. There are cameras everywhere. You just have to distance yourself from the gossip. Winning is what really makes us tick – especially at Cheltenham.”

It has been a week when the public perception of racing has sunk to an all-time low. When even shrewd judges are so infected by “Betfair fever” that they think the worst of the Fallon and Sean Fox rides, which are either bare-faced crookedness or spectacular incompetence. But the rumour mill will continue to grind unless more jockeys, and indeed racing professionals at all levels, pledge themselves anew to higher standards in the way Andrew Thornton does, particularly in the ghetto racing on the sand where some of the stories emanating would make your hair curl.

My own week began with a golden morning moment winging up the moor at Middleham on a winning three-year-old of Mark Johnston’s. The wind in the mane and the swing of the stride brought back just how glorious a creature is the equine athlete on which the whole game depends, how necessary it is to stamp out those who bend it. As we pulled up with the idyllic pattern of Wensleydale spread out across the valley under the eastern sun, I read again the logo on my horse’s exercise sheet. It was Johnston’s credo: `Always Trying’. Spread the word.

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