‘An Evening with Choc Thornton’

organised by the London Racing Club

Tuesday 21 September 2010


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Having discovered that Choc had been appointed to serve as Kempton Park’s ‘Face of National Hunt Racing’ this autumn, I fully expected that my next encounter with my favourite jockey would be on Sunday 17 October at the track. 


However, since the end of August, Choc has been writing a weekly column for the Racing Post, so it was with much excitement that I read (in his column dated Monday 20 September) that he would be appearing at an event organised by the London Racing Club entitled ‘An Evening with Robert Thornton’ which was being held on Tuesday 21 September at the Kensington Forum Hotel in Cromwell Road, West London.  Entry to the event was free to club members and just £5 for non-members – an absolute bargain!


Fortunately I live just a 22-minute train journey from St Pancras and, with just one transfer onto the Piccadilly Line required, the journey to reach the hotel couldn’t be easier.  So it was a ‘no brainer’ for me, I was going to attend!


I spent Monday evening rummaging through my wardrobe and trying on outfits ... skirt or trousers; top or sweater or cardigan?  I decided on a pair of grey trousers, and a purple/blue cardigan, although I did become a ‘cleavage diva’ ... so I decided to wrap a scarf around my neck to preserve my modesty!  However, according to style guru Gok Wan: ‘Surprisingly, better a demure hemline than a demure neckline’!  And I decided upon my light blue raincoat, as my cerise pink raincoat has had too much ‘publicity’ recently, having appeared on TV when I was a spectator at the NH Jockeys’ Football match and on ATR’s ‘The Weighing Room’!!!


Having eventually turned-in for the night, I recall waking in the early hours knowing that I had to be somewhere the next day but it taking a few seconds to remember exactly what it was!  It must be my age.  And then, having gone back to sleep again, I dreamt that I’d taken so long to get ready that I’d totally missed the event ...


I almost always walk to work, but today I drove my car, as it would be late in the evening before I returned from London and I didn’t wish to walk home alone in the dark at night.  As there are a very limited number of parking spaces available at my place of work, I had to park in a nearby street.  Okay, not that near, as it is only a short distance from the train station and parking spaces are occupied by commuter traffic from an early hour. 


I sought permission to leave early, or at least to stop work early, my standard hours being 09:00 to 17:30 with an hour for lunch (although to get through my heavy workload, more often than not I need to put in extra unpaid hours).  So, having arrived at around 08:25, I took a brief break at lunchtime, strolling around to the City station to purchase my ticket to London.  I stopped work at 17:00; changed into my evening outfit and went to collect my car, driving back to the company car park to leave the vehicle in a space which had now become available.  


I caught a ‘fast’ train at around 17:45, first stop St Pancras.  When the Eurostar terminal was re-located to the station from Waterloo, a new Thameslink platform interchange was built which, unfortunately for commuters, now means that there is a far greater distance to walk to reach the underground line platforms.


However, as I’m a very big fan of gothic architecture, I love the station facade and am so pleased that the original hotel building has been preserved.  And I like the new ‘Meeting Place’ statue although, unfortunately, you have to go to the top level, from where the Eurostar trains depart, to see it.


Anyway, having reached St Pancras and negotiated the escalators leading up from the Thameslink platform, I took a left turn and headed along the concourse towards Kings Cross station and underground, rather than taking the route via the under-croft shopping area.  I was soon aboard a Piccadilly Line westbound train, which would eventually terminate at Uxbridge.  I confess that, for 2 or 3 years after the 7/7 bombings in 2005, I avoided travelling on the westbound Piccadilly Line between Kings Cross and Russell Square, preferring to travel via Blackfriars and the Circle Line instead.  It just didn’t seem right to travel through the same tunnel where all those poor victims of the terrorist attack died. 


But back to a much happier subject ... I eventually arrived at Gloucester Road tube station, alighting from the train and discovering it was a ‘lift or stairs’ exit.  I took the lift on this occasion, having learnt my lesson climbing the stairs out of Covent Garden tube station a couple of years ago!  I’m fairly fit, although not as fit as when I used to go rambling regularly.


Once outside the station I took a left turn, which took me to the Cromwell Road, and then left again, with the hope that the Kensington Forum Hotel would soon be in sight.  Good call, the hotel soon appeared on my left ... although I had to do a tour of the block in order to find the main entrance!  It was 18:40.


Having entered via the huge revolving door, I was hoping to find a notice-board, or similar, directing me to the London Racing Club’s event.  However, there was nothing to be seen.  I then noticed the concierge and information point ... now that’s what I need.  I went to wait by the desk until it was my turn to be ‘served’.  Amazingly, as I waited, who should walk in through the entrance but the man himself ... looking as gorgeous as ever!  Choc was wearing a grey pinstripe jacket, a pale pink shirt, blue jeans and black shoes.

Having discovered from the concierge that the event was taking place in a first floor meeting room, I set off through the lobby.  And, as fate would have it, Choc happened to be pacing the floor, speaking on his mobile phone.  Obviously it was not the time to be shy, especially as he knows me, so I waited for him to finish the call and went to say hello.  And, oh wow ... as we have met a number of times before, he automatically proffered his cheek for me to kiss!  How fabulous is that?  I’m on ‘cheek kissing’ terms with the gorgeous and wonderful Choc Thornton. J

I told him that I was pleased his recovery was going very well, and apologised if I’d embarrassed him with my appearance on ATR’s Weighing Room last month.  He didn’t seem to mind at all, although it had ‘thrown him’ slightly because it was completely unexpected!  He also said that he hadn’t expected to see me there this evening ... I told him the journey took less than an hour, so there was no way I was going to stay at home!   And he confessed to being very nervous prior to his appearance tonight.


A lady from the Racing Club soon arrived to collect Choc, so he excused himself and I set off to find the meeting room.  As I was early, I found a seat in the second row (being a little too shy to sit on the front row) but, as I was next to the middle aisle, I had a clear view of Choc all evening!  

The promised interviewer, Racing UK’s Nick Luck, was unable to make it to the event, but we had a very able substitute in the form of the Racing Post’s Andrew Barr.  A little later in the evening it transpired that Andrew had been researching information for the event and made special mention of my ‘very useful’ website ... at which point Choc announced that I was in the audience!  I was a little embarrassed when I had to own up to being Choc’s ‘superfan’ and everyone looked at me!

Choc had brought along two DVDs, one presented to him by Katchit’s owners and the other from his mother’s extensive collection – I understand she has a copy of all his rides!  Wow, what a fabulous collection that must be.  However, try as they might, his mum’s DVD would not play on the DVD player or on Andrew’s laptop.  Shame. L  Choc brought along his well-thumbed copy of Alan King’s Owners’ Open Day brochure, whilst Andrew had borrowed a pristine copy from a friend!


As you can see from the photos above, there were refreshments aplenty for Choc!  I did notice, however, that he had to ask Andrew to undo the top on one of the bottles – I know Choc broke his thumb earlier in his career and I wonder if this affects his ability to open a tightly screwed bottle top?


Anyway ... here we go ...


Choc explained that he was born in Darlington 32 years ago, his father Martin being employed as a huntsman by the Zetland at that time.  Having lived in County Durham for his first 11 years, the family then moved to Bicester, his father having taken up a job with their local hunt.  They remained in Oxfordshire for 3 years, after which they relocated to Leicestershire, his father fulfilling his ambition of hunting in the county by joining the Belvoir (pronounced Beaver).  Due to the ban on hunting, his father is now retired.


Choc learnt to ride at the age of 8, it being his choice and at his request, unlike his brother Richard who had been put on a pony as a toddler and not taken to it at all ... although Choc alluded to the fact that perhaps his father had expected too much too young from his brother. 


During the winter Choc would go hunting with his parents each weekend, and hinted that he sometimes used to miss school to go hunting too!  Then, during the summer months, he would compete in horse trial events.  It was through his association with event rider Marjorie Comerford, who was a friend of David Nicholson (The Duke), that she arranged for him to have 2 weeks’ work experience at his yard.  


Choc’s father didn’t wish him to go into hunt service, believing there was no future in it and, besides, Choc liked the horses rather than the hounds and wanted to be a National Hunt jockey.  Choc did, however, start A Level courses at college (in Grantham) at the age of 16, but his heart was never in it.  So his mum, Sally, told him he could leave college if he found a job – and The Duke gave him that all important job.


The stable lads at Jackdaws Castle were required to work for one year before they got the opportunity to ride in an amateur race.  The young amateur jockeys would have to phone around to the trainers to get rides, and later in their career The Duke (Choc stated that he never refers to him as David Nicholson) would introduce the jockeys to agent Dave Roberts.  Choc has no problem with numerous jockeys using Dave’s service, as he knows his agent will look after his best interests and won’t offer him ‘dodgy’ horses to ride!  The stable-lads’ accommodation at Jackdaws Castle is second to none.


During his time with The Duke, Choc became top Amateur and then progressed to top Conditional Jockey, riding his first two Cheltenham winners in 1997 at the tender age of 18.  


When Choc left The Duke, initially he joined Geoff Hubbard’s yard, but Geoff soon passed away, after which he joined Kim Bailey from 2000 to 2002 – Choc described it as the worst spell in his career.  He obviously didn’t get along with Kim!  Choc became Alan King’s stable jockey in 2002. 


Evidently Choc attended Alan’s Open Day that year and was asked by Alan to become stable jockey.  However, as Alan was ‘pissed’ at the time, Choc wasn’t sure if the offer would stand.  But Alan phoned Choc the next day, asking him to breakfast ... and the rest is history. Prior to this, Richard Johnson had been riding the majority of Alan’s horses, but Richard was also riding for Philip Hobbs and Henry Daly, and Alan wanted a stable jockey who could provide continuity.  Alan promised Choc that he would be riding all the yard’s horses by Christmas, and that’s what happened.


When asked if formal contracts were signed when he’s been appointed as a stable jockey, Choc said they have always been ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ sealed with a handshake.


Andrew asked Choc about his Cheltenham winning rides (using my website list I hasten to add!).


Not surprisingly, Choc spoke about his current injury, sustained when his mount, the Paul Nicholls trained Hell’s Bay ran out through the wing during a Novices’ Chase at Newton Abbot in early July (the horse having since transferred to the Colin Tizzard yard).  Choc said it would have been easier for the horse if it had jumped the fence rather than run out through the wing!  Due to the lack of runners from the Alan King yard this summer, Choc said he was just ‘getting his foot in the door’ with regards to riding a few of Paul’s horses during the summer months.


He confirmed that his injury wasn’t as painful as some of the broken bones he’s sustained, such as collarbones, ribs, and a thumb.  When the seriousness of the damage was revealed by the scan, he cried ... bless him ... because he loves his job so much and couldn’t bear the thought of not riding for months on end.


He also revealed that he’d watched a video of a similar operation on the internet the night before his surgery ... although, in hindsight, he wouldn’t recommend this.  He knows both his cruciate ligaments (anterior and posterior) have been replaced by tissue from his left hamstring, and his hamstring will re-generate.  Originally it was proposed to use the ligament from his left kneecap to replace the medial collateral ligament, but he believes that the surgeon finally decided to use a synthetic one instead.


Choc takes full responsibility for the pain encountered in the immediate days following the operation.  He does not like to take painkillers as he believes pain will stop him taking any liberties with the injury – as you can easily do additional damage when masking any resulting pain.  But fortunately his wife Meally and his GP, Dr Disney, soon got his pain management organised.  (Note from Jane – weirdly enough I’m of the same opinion – when I fell over last October and hurt my back and seriously bruised my ribs, I was in a lot of pain and discomfort for 10 days before I surrendered to the pain free existence afforded by strong painkillers!)


There was a 15-minute break at 20:15.  The lady who had earlier collected Choc in the foyer, brought two plates of food upstairs for Choc and Andrew.  Jokingly, the comment was made that Choc would not normally have been able to eat a plateful of food due to keeping his weight down, and this evening he wouldn’t be able to eat the food because he was talking!


Following the interlude, the DVD was played of Katchit winning the 2007 Triumph Hurdle, followed by him winning the 2008 Champion Hurdle.  Everyone, including Choc, found it amusing that one of the background soundtracks was the ‘Chariots of Fire’ theme tune.  The other soundtrack being from ‘Champions’ the story of Bob Champion and Aldiniti, which in recent years I always associate with the BBC’s Grand National coverage. Choc admitted that he never tires of watching his big race wins.


Choc is now keeping tabs on his weight, as he’s the wrong side of 11 stone at present and doesn’t want too difficult a task of losing the extra pounds as his return to the saddle approaches.  A member of the audience asked if, when he was a youngster, he was worried that he could grow too big to be a jockey.  Were his parents tall?  No, his mum isn’t very tall, and he’s grown to be around the same height as his dad.  However, he did say that his brother, Richard, is of much larger stature (Note from Jane: This is fortunate, as his brother is a stalls-handler!)


Choc’s all-time equine hero is Desert Orchid.  As a child he had pictures of Dessie adorning his bedroom walls.  He still has a number of pictures of the horse at home ... although Meally wants him to take them down!


His jockey heroes are Richard Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire, the latter not being the most stylish but he was very effective. 


Choc finds Newbury the most difficult course to ride at the present time, which is probably due to the length of the home straight.   He stated that Newbury seemed much easier in the days when he was an amateur, but that was probably because the strength of opposition was not so great.


Baby Thornton’s due date is Wednesday 22 December (so I’ve been researching famous Sagittarians and Capricorns [see below], and I wonder which star sign he will be).  Someone asked him if he was worried about losing sleep when the baby arrives ... no, not particularly, as he doesn’t sleep well anyway!


Having mentioned the unsuitable timing of the National Hunt fixture break in his Racing Post column recently, Choc was asked about this.  He likes the idea of a break in August instead, having noted that in 2011 the break will again occur in September (Thursday 8th to Saturday 17th inclusive); the problem is that racecourses just don’t wish to move their fixtures, an example being Newton Abbot who wants to retain a ‘holiday time’ festival fixture in August. 


Choc said he was very proud when he won a Lester Award for his ride aboard Nenuphar Collonges at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival.  (The horse is no longer in Alan’s yard, having been sold to go hunter chasing.)  However, Choc explained that Nenuphar used to wear blinkers not because he was un-genuine, but because he was ‘scared of his own shadow’!


It transpires that Taunton has the worst Weighing Room – all concrete, with no carpets – the sauna is always crowded, not because the jockeys are trying to lose weight, but because they wish to keep warm!


What are Choc’s thoughts on Cheltenham moving the final hurdle nearer to the finish line, like during last season’s Cheltenham Festival?  Probably a good idea as, by the end of the first day in 2008, he’d already accumulated a 6-day ban (aboard Captain Cee Bee and Katchit).  However, it allowed him to go skiing (Note from Jane – he went with Meally; Ruby Walsh and wife Gillian).  Choc loves skiing but, having sustained his current injury and all the problems associated with his recovery, he’s definitely avoiding the ski slopes until after he retires.  Choc said that his main interests, outside of racing, are all sports-related too.


Choc brought up the related subject of Cheltenham moving the ‘notorious’ second last fence on the old course.  He would have preferred them to leave it where is was, as it’s all part of tradition and a challenge, but he fully understands the animal welfare issues involved and thinks the fence’s new site should add to the spectacle and make for a more exciting finish in front of the stands. 


He described Cheltenham’s new course as a ‘galloping’ course, whereas you always seem to be on the turn on the old course.  (Note from Jane: the new course is 1 mile 5 furlongs around; the old course 1 mile 4 furlongs).


Choc was asked about his ‘no interview’ stance with Channel 4 at the Festiva, he re-iterated his view that, firstly, the owners should hear the views of their jockey before the media do, and secondly, he is always worried that he might say something stupid in the heat of the moment.  He is always willing to speak with the media once he’s unsaddled.


Towards the end of the evening Choc spoke about a number of the horses in Alan’s yard, and their prospects for the season ahead.


The JP McManus-owned Karabak (who is ridden by AP) has undergone an operation on his back, for a ‘kissing’ spine, but has recovered well. 


Choc mentioned that Bensalem succumbed to pneumonia and pleurisy following a bout of travel sickness as a result of his trip back from a summer break in Ireland.  The jury is currently out, because Choc said you can never tell what the long term affects of a lung problem might be.  Had Bensalem not been sick, he would have probably run in the Hennessy Gold Cup, in which he would have had a very good chance.


Choc revealed that Sir Robert Ogden has moved his horses, apart from Voy Por Ustedes, from Alan King’s yard to Nicky Henderson’s (ie. Sagalyrique, Forzy Origny, and Chamirey).  Voy Por is so highly strung that he is never worked with other horses ... when he first came to the yard, Choc was sent flying when the horse put on the brakes at a schooling fence.

Choc is very much looking forward to new recruit Franklino owned, like Walkon and Mille Chief, by the McNeill family.  He comes from the same French-based source too, as Max McNeill likes horses who are ‘ready to go’, rather than slow maturing ‘store’ horses.  Following last season’s absence, Walkon is expected to stick to hurdling for the foreseeable future.


Katchit was purchased by Alan whilst in the bar at Salisbury (that’s Alan not the horse!) and Choc thought he may have been the worse for drink, as when the horse was unloaded off the horsebox they couldn’t believe how tiny he was.  But Choc said he metaphorically grow 2 inches when presented with hurdles to jump.  However, as we all know now, he has proved to be extremely game, despite his lack of stature.  He’s still young at 7 and, although past his best, should be able to pick up more prizes having recovered from the pastern injury incurred during the World Hurdle last March.  


Araldur got a mention and will be aimed at chases over a longer trip than previously; although Choc is concerned his handicap mark will be too high.


Sir Harry Ormesher – the handicapper may have caught up with him over hurdles – but he may try chasing again, although the last-fence fall at Kempton Park last November did frighten the horse.  (Note from Jane: I was there that day).


Lidar, although still held in high regard by Alan, has been a big disappointment to Choc – he’s brilliant on the gallops but doesn’t show the same form on the racecourse.  A step up in distance will be tried.


Choc also likes the Liz Prowting-owned flashy chestnut, Custer of the West.  No world beater, but nice nonetheless.


Halcon Genelardis, at 10 years old, is now set for hunter chasing.


Batonnier is another horse Choc likes, having won a bumper easily at Fontwell last May. 


The yard was pleased with Pouvoir’s win at Uttoxeter last Sunday under Sam Thomas.  Alan thought the horse would need the run, but he won well and it was nice to see the horse back after injury problems.  Although Wayne Hutchinson could have ridden the horse, Alan decided not to risk him on a novice chaser because he would have felt guilty if something had happened to Wayne on the day he returned from his long injury absence.    


Choc’s current young ‘jockeys to watch’ are, not surprisingly, Sam Twiston-Davies – although Choc is concerned that the very talented Sam will ride out his claim too quickly, which makes it very difficult for a young jockey; and David Bass, who is currently attached to the Nicky Henderson yard.


Choc would like to add the Cheltenham Gold Cup to his CV, having won the other 3 blue ribbon events at Cheltenham – Champion Hurdle, World Hurdle, Champion Chase.  However, top of his ‘wish list’ would be the Grand National.


Choc prefers to ride in steeplechases rather than in hurdle races, as the nature of the obstacles encourages the horses to jump better.


A member of the audience did ask Choc if he was considering becoming a trainer when he retired.  Choc replied that he’s not totally ruled it out, but he has his reservations about coping with all the intricacies of dealing with the owners as well as their horses!  He lacks a little confidence in this field.


And I must recount the final story of the evening, which happened when Choc was around 10 years old and living in Darlington.  He attended the local hunt with his mum and dad and, because it was a very cold day, he was offered a stirrup cup containing a concoction known as 'Percy's brew'(?).  However, not only did his mum give him a cup to drink, but so did his dad, and most of the hunt members did too.  So, by the time the hunt set off, he was feeling very poorly and asked if he could go home.  His parents thought he'd just ride his pony back along the lane to the yard... however Choc had other ideas and set off across country on his mount, jumping all the obstacles in his path and, having arrived back at the stables, he then fell off and the stable girls had to put him to bed!  Bless his little cotton socks!

At the end of the evening, as the audience was leaving, Choc kindly signed a number of photographs for the President of the London Racing Club, John Maxse.  John is the ex-Director of Communications and Special Projects at the Jockey Club and has ridden in point-to-points.

I stayed behind to speak briefly with Choc - saying how much I had enjoyed the evening.  I gave him my best wishes for an enjoyable visit to Manchester United, and said that I hoped to see him at Kempton Park next month.  And I kissed him goodbye on the cheek yet again ... wow!

Once outside the hotel I returned to Gloucester Road tube station, this time taking the spiral steps down to the platform (87 steps it stated on a notice at the bottom).  I took the Piccadilly Line to Kings Cross, and then headed for the Thameslink platform.  However, upon arrival, I was directed to the top level of the concourse as all trains were departing from the Midland Line platforms – overnight engineering work must still be taking place in the Thameslink tunnel.  It’s been a nightmare for months and months, during late evenings and at weekends.

There was a train waiting at the platform so I got onboard, St Albans being the second stop after West Hampstead.  I arrived back in my home city at 23:00, collecting my car from my work car park for the drive home.  As I headed home I was nearly witness to a road accident, a car having pulled out of a turning ahead of me, narrowly missing a motorcyclist as it did so.  It must have scared the car driver almost as much as the motorcyclist, as the car mounted the pavement opposite but fortunately didn’t hit anything (apart from the kerb of course).

Sadly my photographs aren’t as ‘crisp and clear’ as I’d hoped (as using the camera flash seemed too intrusive) ... but the best ones are above.  I confess that I wear reading glasses over my contact lenses when I take photographs (as my contact lenses are solely for distance as I’m short-sighted, which I’m sure is a result of all the intricate hobbies I partake in, as my vision was perfectly okay until I was 29 years old).  But it might just be that I’m a useless photographer!!! 

Another confession, I didn’t remove my make-up before I went to bed ... how could I, when I’d planted a couple of kisses on the cute one’s cheek?  But I did remove it the following morning, to be replaced with fresh makeup for the day ahead!

Choc is just so nice, and his hair is so long and beautiful at the moment too.  It was a fabulous and entertaining evening, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.  And not to mention the opportunity of spending over 2 hours in Choc’s company for a mere £5!!!




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