Cheltenham 2017: Choc tasted sweet festival successes
When the moment comes for a National Hunt jockey to call time on their career, a measure of success can often be judged on how many times they appeared in the winner’s enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival, such is the hold the prestigious meeting has upon the sport.
While his riding days may now be behind him, Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton enjoyed that walk back into horse racing’s greatest amphitheatre on no fewer than 15 occasions, the first of which arrived in 1997, just a year after his inaugural ride on the biggest stage of them all.
Having finished mid-order aboard the John Needham-trained 100-1 shot Leinthall Princess in the 1996 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup, fresh-faced teenager Thornton made a victorious return in the race 12 months later on King Lucifier for his boss David Nicholson.
He said: “I was only 18 at the time and it was just a bit surreal. When you are young, you are not afraid of failure. It didn’t go to plan, as I took it up at the last ditch down the back and the Duke had said not to be upsides until two out, but he hung on and won.
“If it had happened in a big Saturday race, the Duke would have said ‘you have taken it up too soon’, but as it is the Cheltenham Festival it soon gets forgotten.
“The thing about my first winner was I then rode my second winner 30 minutes later in what is now the Pertemps aboard Pharanear. That just made it very surreal.
“There was a stewards’ inquiry afterwards with Jamie Osborne and they asked if he suffered interference and he said ‘no, the kid beat me fair and square’ which was good of him.”
Despite sampling Festival glory so early in his career, the father of two was forced to wait until 2004 before his turn was to arrive again, with victory aboard the Alan King-trained Fork Lightning in what was then the William Hill NH Handicap Chase.
That was to spark the start of a golden era at Prestbury Park for Thornton, with another 11 winners in the next four Festivals.