Jockey Tim Thornton just won his first riding title in spite of many injuries.

Jockey Tim Thornton just won his first riding title in spite of many injuries.

Andy Dostal

Inside Track: Make It or Break It

Jockey Tim Thornton just won his first riding title in spite of many injuries.

Timothy Thornton's injuries from race-riding include, in chronological order, a broken right wrist that was misdiagnosed and later required surgery; torn ligaments in the same hand; torn ligaments in a left leg; a torn left rotator cuff; and some bumps and bruises suffered during the recently concluded Hawthorne Race Course meet.

His five-year-old career includes, also in chronological order, an apprentice season with a stint as top bug-boy at Aqueduct; victories in the Whirlaway and Michigan Sire Stakes; more than 3,000 starters ridden at tracks across the country; and – most significantly – successful comebacks from all aforementioned injuries.

That, as Thornton simply puts it, is why the Hawthorne riding title earned Jan. 13 meant so much to him. After 81 days and 92 wins, when he wound up in the winner’s circle with a small, clear trophy in his hands, he did not immediately reflect on the past season, his agent’s talent, or the kindness of the trainers who helped him get there. Instead, as he posed for the picture with an ear-to-ear grin, one comment kept running through his mind: Man, I’m leading rider – and I didn’t get hurt really bad this year!

To understand the irony of that thought, it is necessary to recognize two key factors. First, a riding career has been Thornton’s single-minded pursuit in life. Second, the 20-year-old jockey can list a significant injury for every one of the five years he has spent in silks.

“The injuries were upsetting, but I dealt with them the best way I could,” Thornton said in a recent interview. “Every time I got hurt, I just went home and did everything I could to heal up. I worked so much to try to ride and then to have all that stuff happen was depressing sometimes, but it wasn’t gonna stop me. I’ve always had a real tough family. We do what it takes.”

When you meet Thornton in person, you think he is a very, very nice young man. You wonder how he remained steady and well-mannered even after encountering the racetrack’s fast-paced lifestyle. When you hear of his multiple injuries and comebacks, you wonder why he hasn’t given up on riding or spiraled into oblivion. Then you speak to his mother, and it all makes perfect sense.

Mark and Darlene Thornton raised their children to respect a certain set of guidelines. Try your hardest. Never say never. Always give 110%. Thornton made those guidelines his own.

“He’s probably one of the most competitive individuals you’ll ever meet – but in a positive way,” Darlene Thornton said. “He’s very self-motivated and driven to complete whatever his goals are. Everything he does, he puts his whole heart into it.”

Granted, praise from anyone’s mother should be taken with a grain of salt, but Darlene Thornton has been closer to her son’s career than the average parent. She was the one who brought him to Arlington Park when he was 14, staying for a few weeks and giving him a chance to meet trainers and rove the barn area in an “are you really sure you want to do this?” type of move (answer – an emphatic “yes”). And when Thornton got his bug and headed to New York as a 16-year-old in 2003, Darlene went along.

“The racehorse industry can be rough sometimes, and I think me being able to stay with him those couple years helped him stay focused and not get taken up in the whirlwind of it all,” she said. “I can’t even imagine a boy of 16 being alone in New York, especially for a kid who grew up in the middle of nowhere.”

“The middle of nowhere” was Thornton’s childhood home of Utopia, Texas, where the family moved when he was 8. Mark Thornton, a former bull rider, galloped and trained Quarter Horses on the Louisiana racing circuit before switching to his current career as a farrier. In Utopia, – a town with a population of less than 300 – he shoed horses and raised four hard-knocking rodeo competitors.

John, now 24, rode and learned to shoe horses, Matt, now 21, tangled with the bulls, while Maria, now 19, ran barrels. Timothy did the same but also exhibited signs of “jockey fever” – watching TVG, wearing old jockey  silks, and carrying a rider’s whip everywhere he went.

Those anecdotes are average compared to the stories Darlene Thornton loves to tell – like the time her son took horses to the neighbor’s private airstrip and rode them bareback down the runway at a full gallop. Or  the way Mark purchased a broken-down claimer and Thornton galloped that horse around and around the pasture in preparation for his riding career. Or the way the kid surprised everybody when he turned out to be such a gifted reinsman.

“He’s so gutsy he makes me nervous,” his mother said. “He has this ‘if the head fits, the rest of the body will follow’ mentality. He had himself prepared to do this thing from so early on, we couldn’t have stopped him if we tried.”

Others in the industry, especially Thornton’s fellow riders, respect his attitude.

“I like him; he’s a good guy,” said jockey T.D. Houghton. “He’s pretty tough and he overcame a lot.”

“He’s a smart rider; he’s young, but he does a good job,” said Chris Emigh, seven-time leading rider at Hawthorne. “He should go far.”

And Thornton’s agent, Jimmy Ernesto, plans for them to do just that during the upcoming 2008 Hawthorne season.

“The kid always looked beautiful on a horse, the way he sits a horse and gets it to relax,” Ernesto said. “He worked very hard this year, he rode great, and showed he’s a good competitor.”

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