Sad news arrived yesterday of ‘Choc’ Thornton’s retirement after his battle with injury.
The 37-year-old had not ridden competitively since suffering damage to vertebrae in a fall at Chepstow back in April 2014. Thornton said of the decision: “Whilst I've always hoped to return, following recent specialist reports and having met with Dr Hill from the BHA, due to on-going issues with my neck and upper limbs I have no choice but to retire.”
He went on to thank the trainer who provided the ammunition for his greatest victories: “I'd like to thank all the trainers and owners who have supported me over the years, in particular Alan King and his owners, who've been incredibly supportive especially the last four or five years when I had a rotten run of luck with injuries. I'd also like to thank the team at Oaksey House, and in particular Daloni Lucas, as well as Jerry Hill at the BHA, who has been first class throughout.”
For agent Dave Roberts it’s another high profile jockey to come off the books following on from AP’s retirement. Acting on behalf of Thornton throughout his career, he said: “It's sad news as I know he's tried really hard to get back, but it's not going to happen, unfortunately.”
Roberts went on to heap praise on the rider, saying: “I've been very lucky to work with some of the top jockeys around and he was definitely right up there with the best of them. His record at Cheltenham was exceptional. On the big stage, there was nobody better. He had a great grounding with David Nicholson and carried that through to being a great jockey and a great person. He was always a pleasure to deal with.”
Thornton started out as an amateur with Nicholson at Jackdaws Castle, winning the Conditional Jockey's title in 1998. But he is best known for his association with Alan King at his Barbury Castle Stables.
In 2004 ‘Choc’ rode King’s Fork Lightning to victory at the Cheltenham Festival, and a year later found Grade 1 success aboard the stables Penzance in the Triumph Hurdle. That 2005 Festival also saw Thornton ride a double for French trainer Francois Doumen on-board Kelami and Moulin Riche.
This proved to be the start of a ‘Purple Patch’ for Barbury Castle, with high-profile winners a plenty over the following half dozen seasons. My Way De Solzen and Voy Por Ustedes arrived on the scene during the 2005/06 campaign, with the former taking the World Hurdle, whilst the latter leapt to a stunning success in the Arkle Chase.
Later in 2006 a diminiative juvenile hurdler announced himself as a horse worth following, when Thornton rode Katchit to a trio of victories at Cheltenham’s mid-winter meetings. Those performances could not have prepared us for the stunning demolition that took place in the Triumph Hurdle, back at Cheltenham in March 2007. The pocket-sized rocket streaked clear to win by a yawning nine lengths.
That Cheltenham Festival week of 2007 proved to be a sensational one for Thornton and King, with My Way De Solzen taking the Arkle Chase and Voy Por Ustedes successful in the Champion Chase. Thornton then added to his tally when riding the Paul Nicholls trained Andreas to victory in the Grand Annual.
‘Choc’ was fast becoming the ‘go to’ jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, and he opened the 2008 proceedings with victory on-board Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for trainer Edward Harty. AP had chosen to ride Binocular, but ‘Choc’ rode a blinder, delivering his mount at exactly the right moment, before getting on top from the last flight. It was a ‘peach’ of a ride.
Incredibly, the best was yet to come for the jockey when he partnered the bravest hurdler in training to win the Champion Hurdle. Katchit became the first five-year-old for more than 20 years to take hurdling’s greatest prize. He showed all of his warrior-like qualities to get home in testing conditions ahead of Osana and Punjabi.
I was fortunate enough to be there that day, and I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed an out-pouring of raw emotion quite like that of Choc’s as he entered the winners’ enclosure. You couldn’t help but love Katchit. It was an incredible performance from both horse and jockey.
Later that week Thornton needed all of his skill and strength to drive home Nenupher Collonges to win the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in atrocious conditions. Other great wins came Thornton’s way over the following years. Voy Por Ustedes won Grade 1’s at Ascot and Aintree, whilst the likes of Walkon, Medermit and Bensalem became new stars of the yard.
‘Choc’ may never have challenged for a jockeys’ title, and may have spent much of his career, like others, in the shadow of McCoy and Walsh, but when you look at the horses he rode to such glorious victories at the greatest National Hunt meetings, he surely could not have wished for a more thrilling career.
Robert Thornton had many a low moment as a jockey over the years, but ‘WOW’ those highs were of Everest like proportion.