Robert “Chocolate” Thornton was forced to call time on his career as a jockey in September, 2015, after failing to fully recover from fractured vertebrae in his neck – the latest in a series of bad injuries – suffered in a fall at Chepstow the previous April. However, in nearly 20 years, for most of which he operated as stable jockey to Wiltshire trainer Alan King, Thornton rode 1,129 winners, including 16 at the Cheltenham Festival.
He rode his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, King Lucifer, trained by David Nicholson, in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup as an 18-year-old amateur in 1997 and completed a notable double on Pharanear in what is now the Pertemps Network Final for the same trainer just 35 minutes later. Thornton enjoyed his most successful year at the Cheltenham Festival in 2007, when victories on My Way De Solzen in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Voy Por Ustedes in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Katchit in the Triumph Hurdle and Andreas in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup made him leading jockey at the meeting for the one and only time.
He was, in fact, the last British jockey to win the leading jockey award at the Cheltenham Festival.
Thornton also won on his first two rides at the Cheltenham Festival in 2008, Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Katchit in the Champion Hurdle, in what turned out to be the most successful season of his career, with 105 winners. His final Cheltenham Festival success came aboard Bensalem in what is now the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase in 1998, avenging a luckless defeat in the same race twelve months previously. All in all, Thornton won three of the four ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle, but never won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.