23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 56

Talent spotting

Robin Oakley

When he first left school and joined David Nicholson's yard, the Duke's team all called Robert Thornton 'Chocolate'. The label was attached by Gordon Clarkson, now assistant trainer to Richard Phillips, because the young Thornton ate little else. At 23 Robert Thornton still has the sort of cherub's face you expect to see above a choirboy's surplice, even if in his case you'd have a suspicion that lurking under the linen with the Mars Bars there might be a catapult and a whoopee cushion to be slipped onto the vicar's pew. But, for all the innocence of the expression and the downright modesty when you try to get him to talk about his riding achievements, there is too a watchfulness about the eyes, a challenging set to the jaw. Robert Thornton is one of those riders who has been through the character-making process of being hailed early on as a star of the future only to find himself toiling instead among the middle ranks. It is not that he has ever hit hard times. Far from it. Robert is first jockey to Kim Bailey, whose yard has emerged from a lean season of floods and pestilence and is heading back towards its old success rate.

Thanks partly to Richard Johnson's lengthy absence with a broken leg, Chocolate has been riding regularly too for Alan King, who knows him well from his days as assistant trainer to the Duke at Jackdaw's Castle and who tells me: I'm very happy to use him. He's a very good all-round jockey who presents a horse well at a fence and he's been a huge help while Richard was away.' With 435 rides behind him this season. as I write, Robert Thornton is far from being on the breadline and many a young jockey would be delighted to be, as he is, only just outside the top ten in terms of victories this season. But his 39 victories from those rides represent a winning ratio of only 9 per cent compared with the 18 per cent return of Jim Culloty, one place above him, or the 20 per cent-plus rates achieved by the likes of Johnson, Mick Fitzgerald and Norman Williamson, not to mention the 30 per cent of Tony McCoy. He is getting plenty of rides from a wide variety of trainers, but they are not all of the quality that might have been expected for a precociously talented rider who was amateur champion at only 18 and who took the junior professionals conditional jockeys title a year later. 'He is a natural,' says one

trainer who knows him well. 'In fact he was so good as a youngster that when he failed one stage in the Pony Club progression officials actually resigned in protest.'

Some good jockeys go through their professional careers without riding a Cheltenham Festival winner. Robert Thornton rode a double at the Festival as an amateur on King Lucifer and Pharanear for David Nicholson. So why was he booked for only a single ride on last Saturday's card at Ascot? Why have too many of the 39 Thornton winners this season been on tracks like Taunton and Fontwell rather than in the big televised races from Newbury and Kempton? The answer lies partly in racing fashion, partly in sheer bad luck and, for a while. attitude too may have had some effect. When Robert Thornton left the Nicholson yard, where Adrian Maguire and Richard Johnson had the lion's share of rides, to go freelance, he was expecting to be riding most of the late Geoff Hubbard's horses, then trained by Chris Kinane. But that proved a short-lived source of income and attention. Strong Promise, who might have won Thornton a big race, was killed. His first season with Kim Bailey coincided with a lean year in the stable's fortunes, and Kim pays tribute to him not only for a cracking ride on Wonder Weasel at Haydock a few weeks ago, winning on a legless horse, but also for being 'a nice guy who was very loyal through a bad twelve months'.

Like others when they have first lost their riding allowance, Robert Thornton found that life got harder without the claim. There were 71 victories the year he was champion conditional, 37 in his first season as a full pro and only 23 the season after. Perhaps he suffered a little too, says one trainer, from being such a naturally gifted rider and having the self-belief that goes with that. 'Let's put it this way: if he and Richard Johnson had been two lads on a problem estate the young Johnson, Mr Manners, would have been out doing a paper round while Chocolate was having a fag with the lads in the bus shelter.' At first he may not have chased hard enough for the extra rides or listened enough to those who offered advice.

But the riding skills have never gone away. This time last year he rode an excellent treble one Saturday at Sandown on Gola Cher. Storm Damage and The Extra Man. He has ridden on the flat to tighten his style. And while they may not all have been on fashionable tracks, there has been a steady stream of winners this season, some of them at fancy prices. He has been fortunate with injuries, doesn't have a weight problem and hasn't lost his ambition. 'I'd like to be champion jockey.' he tells me, 'and to win any of the Big Three.' He says he knows he has to put his head down, keep working, and go anywhere for rides. And he pays tribute now to what he learned with the Duke. 'He was brilliant at getting a horse jumping and at bringing on

the lads. I probably didn't appreciate it enough at the time.' As you talk to him he keeps telling you how 'fortunate' he has been to get the chances he has. Back in the weighing room, I suspect, he is a little less meek. But the talent shines through and if he can score at the Festival this year on Gola Cher and, perhaps on Wonder Weasel, then the reascent will surely continue. He is, after all, only 23.