The Journeyman

This was due to be a review of the horse racing year that was 2016, but as usual in this sport events overtake us and the action witnessed over the Christmas period means there can only be one story told at the end of 12 months of fascination and fervour.

I do not refer to the end of the Channel 4 era or the emphatic win of Native River in the Welsh Grand National. Strangely, I do not talk about the thoroughly impressive King George winner and Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack (who, incidentally, I will certainly not be backing at 5/4 however exhilarating his performance – the King George is not the Gold Cup and the other four finished in a bit of a heap behind him suggesting Cue Card did not run to form).

I talk of a result that may well have escaped your busy festive schedule. In the Racing Post the next day it got pushed to page 24 while the sublime show that Thistlecrack put on understandably occupied the first three pages. It did not make the 10 O’Clock News and there will be no clamour for honours in the New Year’s list.

At Wincanton on Boxing Day, Andrew Thornton rode his 1,000th winner. At the ripe old age of 44, he will have to enjoy an extraordinary twilight to career if he is to threaten the 4,348 winners accumulated by the now retired legend AP McCoy in a career several years shorter than Thornton’s, but somehow that is missing the point. He now joins a select and illustrious club of just 24 jump jockeys to reach that astonishing landmark.

Andrew Thornton’s 1,000th winner

Winner number 999 was relatively routine as Thornton guided the 5/1 shot Somchine in the Handicap Chase at 1:05. He then finished seventh in the next race and didn’t have a ride in the 2:15. Then we come to the Mares’ Novice Chase at 2:50, a four-horse affair with two useful sorts and two…. not so useful. Desert Queen, the odds-on favourite, departed early and then Antartica De Thaix fell at the third last when 30 lengths clear. No such thing as a dead-cert in this game, you know.

Thornton, aboard 12/1 shot Kentford Myth who was officially rated 42 pounds inferior to the market leader, guided his mount home by seven lengths to secure only the third win of her 22-race career. The lowly and lucky manner of his reaching 1,000 career wins belied the brilliance of that moment and all the accumulated efforts over the previous 26 years. Finally he had done it, and in doing so had recorded an achievement as significant as any other in sport this year.

However, the steaming turd of bad luck is never far away in this game, but surely never before has it been seen in such turbo-sick contrast as that afternoon at Wincanton. Elation turned to pain as Thornton badly twisted his knee when turning to congratulate the owner in the winners’ enclosure. He limped off stage after his big moment, as indeed he limped to the 1,000-winner summit, with age and opportunities against him.

The seasons of big wins in big races seem a long time ago now, because they are. The record books show a return of 9 winners from just 112 outings this season. Who knows, that may indeed be the final tally. Nobody would deny him a well-earned retirement now he has finally chalked off the milestone after years of waiting. Years of Sedgefields and Plumptons, years of falls and breaks, years of motorways and semi-starvation. Does Thornton really want to keep doing it? It would be entirely understandable for him to call it quits, but somehow jump jockeys aren’t made that way.

1,000 is a fairly arbitrary number, given significance only by our decimal system and the human contrivance to recognise achievements, so why do I choose this moment above all the glittering others on offer through a sparkling year for our sport?

The answer is simple: without the Thorntons plying their trade quietly in the background there would be no sport, or at least not like we know it. For Thornton you could read Fehily, Niven, Harding, O’Brien or frankly hundreds of others – unsung heroes unlikely to ever be household names, or garner awards, or get rich. They willingly do the unglamorous graft on unwilling horses so that we can sit in an armchair and watch horse racing.

Perhaps they think they are lucky to still be able to do something they have always loved, and when you think of JT McNamamara, Frederik Tylicki and too many others, it would be hard to disagree with that sentiment. But I think I am lucky that they are still willing to do it on my behalf for the sport that I love. Andrew Thornton: thank you for your years of dedication.