You went to a renowned rugby-playing school, Barnard Castle, which has produced many internationals, including Rob Andrew, the Underwood brothers and Matthew Tait. So how did you end up in racing?
When I went to Barnard Castle I knew I wanted to be a jockey and I was already riding out for ‘WA’ – Arthur Stephenson – in the holidays. But, obviously, I had to accept the fact that you had to go to school first before you could start work! I loved the rugby but it was all amateur – there was never any thought of going down that road because there would not have been a job at the end. When I was 16 I was playing in the first XV and the coach wanted me to stay on. I was told I would never be a jockey because I was too tall! But that didn’t change my mind so I left at 16 and went to work at WA’s. I started on £21 a week, including board and lodging.
‘WA’, as he was affectionately known, was a training legend. What effect did he have on a young, impressionable Thornton?
If you did something wrong he would tell you only once and expect you to put it right, and you did. Even though I was very young he gave me a lot of responsibility, with four horses to do. It was a disciplined yard in as much as the head lad, Kit Stobbs, was on duty feeding at 6.30am and you could set your watch by whichever box he was at each morning. Before riding out WA would come and see you on the horse, ask you what the routine would be and always say: “Get on”. I had an awful lot of respect for him.
You have ridden many high-class horses for some top trainers, the likes of See More Business (Paul Nicholls), Cool Dawn (Robert Alner) and French Holly (Ferdy Murphy). Do they have a common denominator?
They could all get a horse ready for the big day. Paul Nicholls has done that time and time again. Robert Alner may not have had the same number of opportunities but he could always produce one spot on. Ferdy Murphy was the same, and always up to producing a winner or two at Cheltenham. All three are pretty straightforward to ride for, even more so when they’re winning!
French Holly, a brilliant hurdler and potential top class chaser, tragically died under you in a schooling accident. How were you affected at the time and is it something you still think about today?
I rang Ferdy to ask if I could school him over fences as I was due to pass his yard on my way to ride at Hexham. Adrian Maguire schooled with us on Paddy’s Return, but French Holly slipped going into the first fence and the next time he slipped again, put down and turned over. I came off, the horse was shaking on the floor and I knew he had broken his neck.
The irony of the whole thing was that Ferdy questioned whether French Holly really needed a school. Would you believe, I said: “It won’t do him any harm”. You can imagine how I felt. It took me a long time to get over that. First, because I felt he was the best hurdler and potential chaser I’d ever ridden. Second, because the owner, Kieran Flood, was never keen on him going over fences. Also, both Kieran and Ferdy were good friends of mine. I had never killed a horse schooling and it is not an experience you would wish upon even your worst enemy.
There can have been few more emotional triumphs than Miko de Beauchene’s Welsh National success in 2007, following the accident to trainer Robert Alner…
Yes, it even surpassed winning the Gold Cup for Robert on Cool Dawn as far as my emotions were concerned. Robert had always visualised Miko de Beauchene as a Welsh National winner so you can imagine how we all felt at the height of the moment at Chepstow. We were beyond ourselves; there was Sally having just taken over the licence and poor Robert so badly injured after his car accident. I have never ridden a horse so hard after the last and the finish was so tight I had no idea if we’d won. When the result of the photo was announced an awful lot of emotion came flooding out. All we wanted to do was give Robert a lift.
You are not only one of the senior members of the weighing-room, but one of the tallest at 5ft 11in. What weight can you do?
I did 10st 4lb last year. I try to be disciplined, even on holiday I am very careful what I eat and never really lose sight of that. Recently we were away and I had fruit salad in the morning, salad at lunchtime and fish and salad in the evenings. I came back and did 10st 12lb straight away with no wasting or sweating. My weight is much steadier and does not fluctuate anything like as much as it used to. When I get to the races I nearly always have a run round the track before racing, I even used to do that before I became the jockeys’ safety officer.
It has been well documented that you wear contact lenses and carry the nickname ‘Lensio’. Have they been the cause of much mickey-taking among the jockeys?
Plenty! If any of the lads complained when I cut them up in a race I’d shout back: “What do you expect, I can’t see!” I always tell them: “I’m going down the inner because there is a white rail there!” As a teenager at WA’s I didn’t have contact lenses and used to ride out in great big spectacles. So they nicknamed me ‘Eddie’ after Eddie the Eagle. Even now when I bump into any of WA’s old staff they call me ‘Ed’. The weighing-room is like having a group of big kids in there and there is always great camaraderie. Mattie Batchelor is very funny, the biggest joker of us all.
Are you affected when you see your colleagues suffer terrible injuries? Does it ever make you reconsider your profession?
No, it’s part of the job. And the day I reconsider my profession will be the day I give up race-riding. AP has the best saying: “If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t get on a horse.” Injuries are part of our working life. Unfortunately, we’ve all lost some very good friends in racing. I’m afraid it can and does happen.
What are the most notable changes you have seen in the weighing-room over the past 20 years or so?
That I’m getting closer to the last peg! That’s one thing AP and I have in common. Only the other day AP said to me: “Whatever you do don’t give up.” And I know why he said it, because if I was to give up, he’d be next up. Nowadays jockeys are generally much more careful about what they eat and drink, and that goes hand in hand with their fitness. Jockeys are fitter than they have ever been.
Aintree’s Grand National fences are easier to negotiate now following modifications. As a PJA Safety Officer, did you see this as something that had to happen, or do you feel the race has lost some of its sparkle?
Jockeys don’t ride their horses with enough respect for the fences because the fences are not there to be respected like they used to be. The jockeys
are aware of the modifications and know that what’s underneath the spruce is nothing like as tough as it used to be. So the jockeys know they can get away with much more.
I agree with the changes that have been made to the core of the fences. What the general public don’t realise is that it was not Synchronised’s fall in the Grand National that killed him. It was when he was loose that he got stuck on a fence and staked himself. Nobody wants to see that. The race hasn’t lost its appeal to the general public but people within the industry believe it is not as big a test as it used to be. Having seen the result this year when a proper old-fashioned chaser, Auroras Encore, won at 66-1, it goes to show that any horse can win. And that must be good for the race. Auroras Encore jumped well all the way round, so let’s stick up for the race and pander to no one. It’s a very safe race and there is nothing more we can do. We shouldn’t have to defend it because there is nothing to defend.
How long can you go on riding for?
As long as I am still enjoying it… that’s a politician’s answer for you! Realistically, I think for two or three more years. It’s all a question of miles on the clock. I didn’t start riding really seriously until I was 21. I didn’t have my first fall for 89 rides. I feel I have longevity on my side and I have looked after my body.
You have been described as “not stylish, but effective” in the saddle. Would you agree?
Yes, it is the truth and I’ve never been a stylist. But, quite frankly, I’d rather be “not stylish and effective” than “stylish and not effective”. I started at WA’s riding in wellies and jeans. My first winner was Wrekin Hill in a three-mile- three chase and I’ve been mainly known as a chase jockey, which isn’t unfair. I suppose I’ve been pigeonholed, that’s the way it is.
What has been the best moment of your career?
I’ve got to say winning the Gold Cup on Cool Dawn. The pressure was off because the day before I had won the SunAlliance Hurdle on French Holly, who was one of the bankers at the meeting. So I could really enjoy the race and then take in every single second of the long walk back to the winner’s enclosure. It was quite emotional seeing Robert Alner’s smiling face as he greeted me, particularly when you consider how his life has changed.
Of course, the real fairytale was for Cool Dawn’s owner Dido Harding, who had paid only six grand for him. It was the Queen Mother’s last Gold Cup and after she had presented me with the trophy she asked me what I was thinking at the top of the hill, four out. It was almost eerie because I was thinking of my Gran, who had died the previous October and had been my greatest fan always watching me on television. As I came to four out I said to myself: “This is for you, Gran”. When I told this to the Queen Mother she replied: “She would have been very proud of you.” Do you know, speaking to the Queen Mum made me feel as if I was speaking to my Gran; they were both similar in stature and both passionate about racing. It was a Gold Cup postscript you couldn’t write.
Will you be disappointed if you don’t reach the milestone of 1,000 winners?
Yes, in a word. I’ve got about 65 to go but it seems to be taking me longer to get my 1,000th than it is AP to reach his 4,000th. The aim is to do it in the next couple of seasons, and I should with the two good stables of Caroline Bailey and Seamus Mullins behind me.
Has AP McCoy’s domination of the National Hunt scene, and preoccupation with riding more winners than anyone else, been a good or bad thing for the sport?
A good thing, without a doubt. He is an example of dedication and bloody mindedness. He has certainly learnt to appreciate all his success more in the last five years and is much more chilled out these days, probably as a result of having a family. He enjoys it all a lot more.
He has done plenty of good for the game. On his way into any racecourse he will sign every autograph and have his photo taken with racegoers. And he is definitely a much more rounded person than he was a few years ago.