Laying down roots

A partnership formed on National Hunt racecourses led to major Flat ambitions at Apple Tree Stud for Paul Dunkley and former jockey Robert Thornton

It’s pretty much a building site,” warned Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton before Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder’s visit to Apple Tree Stud.

Robert 'Choc' Thornton has switched his sights from riding to breeding thoroughbreds

Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton has switched his sights from riding to breeding thoroughbreds

That proves to be true. Heavy machinery grinds up and down the drive of the 120-acre property near Stow-on-the-Wold, just on the border between Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. There are piles of Cotswold stone, and men in hard hats striding about.

But it is easy to tell that, when completed, this will be a very smart set-up indeed. The stable-yard, with 17 huge, palatial boxes, the covered walker with central lunge pen and the manege would fit in well at any of Britain and Ireland’s top studs. Owner Paul Dunkley and former top National Hunt jockey Thornton, who oversees the nascent breeding operation, are aiming at the stars.

“Paul got into racing by default,” explains Thornton. “When his business partner Danny Reilly retired, they wanted to keep up a connection, to keep them in contact with each other. Danny and his wife liked their horses, and Danny suggested he and Paul should own a couple of racehorses together.”

Paul wants to play at a high level. In terms of the stud, we looked around places like Darley and Juddmonte [for ideas]; he wants something he can be proud of

The pair started with Highland Chief, who ran for Henrietta Knight for a couple of seasons before being moved to Alan King’s in 2007. Thornton, King’s stable jockey at the time, won twice on the horse.

“Then they bought Medermit [on whom Thornton was beaten only a neck in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and won the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown and the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter] and they have had horses with Alan ever since.”

When Thornton’s marriage broke down in 2011, Dunkley – who had bought the site of what is now Apple Tree Stud a couple of years earlier – offered him a barn conversion there to live in.

“Paul got the planning permission he wanted, and this place began to take shape,” says Thornton.

Dunkley, a very successful businessman, became interested in owning a stud.

“He liked the idea of having horses around the place, and he likes the idea of breeding a potential superstar!” says Thornton.

Despite both owner and manager having solid roots in the National Hunt world, the decision was taken to dabble in the other code.

“We have two jumping mares, and that will stay the same, but we are expanding the Flat side,” says Thornton. “There are three Flat mares here at the moment, but we are planning to extend that to around ten.”

They have hit the ground running with some eye-catching purchases. The three Flat mares all have pedigrees straight out of the major league.

The team at Apple Tree Stud are ambitious for the future

The team at Apple Tree Stud are ambitious for the future

Midnight Thoughts and Darinza were both bought privately after being led out of the Keeneland ring unsold in November 2014 at $975,000 and $475,000 respectively. Midnight Thoughts, by Henrythenavigator out of Ribblesdale Stakes winner Irresistible Jewel and a half-sister to Irish St Leger winner Royal Diamond, was carrying to Tapit. The nine-year-old Dalakhani mare Darinza – a half-sister to treble Group 1 heroine Darjina and from the family of Darsi – was in foal to Sea The Stars.

And last autumn Apple Tree Stud paid 360,000gns for Astonishing, a six-year-old Listed winner by Galileo out of the Kris S mare Amazing Krisken. She is due to give birth to a Dansili foal at any moment.

“Paul wants to play at a high level,” states Thornton. “In terms of the stud, we looked around places like Darley and Juddmonte [for ideas]; he wants something he can be proud of and will invest accordingly.”

Do they plan for it to be a commercial operation?

“To a degree; we’d like it to wash its face,” hedges Thornton.

The three mares’ coverings bear evidence of Dunkley’s ambitions. Darinza, who slipped to Frankel last year, is in foal to him again, while Midnight Thoughts will next visit Oasis Dream and Astonishing is booked in to Golden Horn.

“He’s doing it properly!” says Thornton with a grin.

The two jumping mares are Our Pollyanna, by Flemensfirth out of the Kahyasi mare Polly Anthus, and The Pirate’s Queen, by King’s Theatre out of Shivemetimber, herself a Listed winner by Arctic Lord.

“Our Pollyanna has had a Califet foal, while The Pirate’s Queen has a Kalanisi foal – who was the sire of my Champion Hurdle winner Katchit,” Thornton says. “We’re taking a bit of a risk with The Pirate’s Queen this time and sending her to Sea The Moon.”

Sadly, the stud lost Darinza’s Sea The Stars yearling recently, but the grey Tapit colt will be consigned at either Keeneland or Tattersalls.

“For a first foal, he’s big and strong and he’s laid down enough bone; I think he’s a cracker,” says Thornton.

At present, Apple Tree Stud will have nine Flat horses in training this year, alongside the jumpers, Ned Stark and Ardamir. Two of them, Tyrell and Canford Chimes, are with Alan King, as are Ned Stark, who won a Grade 2 novices’ chase in 2015 but has been slightly disappointing this time, and Ardamir, who won at Doncaster recently.

Two more – Dream Danna and Davaland – are with Jamie Osborne. James Fanshawe has Sam Missile – by Smart Strike out of Kitty Matcham, bought at the Tattersalls Breeze-up Sale last April for 72,000gns and winner of his only start to date, at Kempton in January.

“He has some smart entries and I’d love to see him develop into a good horse,” says Thornton.

William Haggas has a two-year-old filly by Pivotal out of Best Terms, bought for 330,000gns at Tattersalls’ Book 1 sale last autumn, while an Invincible Spirit filly out of Leavingonajetplane is in training with Luca Cumani. Clive Cox is in charge of a Helmet filly out of Red Fuschia.

The Flat is more fascinating than I ever gave it credit for when I was riding. I am learning an awful lot – but that is true with horses at every turn

Thornton has known King since he arrived at David Nicholson’s yard as a callow 16-year-old. Osborne was first a weighing room colleague and then the only trainer, Thornton says, for whom he had a 100% record (two out of two) as a jockey. He rode winners, including Reveillez, for Fanshawe, while Cox also has strong jumping connections.

But Haggas and Cumani are part of a world with which Thornton had had little contact. He freely admits that he had little interest in the summer game while he was riding, and the chances of a second career with a strong involvement in Flat racing and bloodstock would have been long odds.

“The Flat is more fascinating than I ever gave it credit for when I was riding,” he says with honesty. “I am learning an awful lot – but that is true with horses at every turn. I know from when I was riding that the day you thought you were fantastic and couldn’t improve was the day you ought to give up.

“It was a bit intimidating at first, but I do find the amount of National Hunt lads who are heavily involved in the Flat amazing; Mark Dwyer, Jamie Osborne, David O’Meara, Roger Varian, Norman Williamson, Frannie Woods… the crossover is significant.”

He has had a lot of help from bloodstock agent Federico Barberini, who signed for Astonishing last November.

“He advises us on the bloodstock and pedigree side,” says Thornton. “He’s fantastic and I’ve loved working with him – I can’t speak highly enough of him and trust him implicitly.”

There are four members of staff alongside Thornton at Apple Tree Stud – Kirsty Durham, who has lots of experience on the stud side, helped by Johnny Sutton, and Gerard Tumelty and his girlfriend Sarah Welford. Tumelty, who still holds a jockey’s licence, worked with Thornton at Alan King’s, and he and Sarah do all the breaking and pre-training. At present, they use a variety of local gallops for the latter, but an oval all-weather gallop will soon be added to the stud. Two of Thornton’s old favourites, Medermit and Blazing Bailey, act as lead horses in their retirement.

“Sarah wants to ride Medermit in a charity race at Garthorpe – he should be a certainty!” chuckles Thornton.

“We have a great team here and Paul, who is 100% an enthusiast and with whom I have always got on really well, has given us all a wonderful opportunity. We are very fortunate to have the backing to play at a decent level.”

The plan is to race the homebred fillies, and breed from them if they are suitable.

“If we had a nice colt, we might keep him too – although we might also buy one,” says Thornton. “One day we’d love to stand a stallion here, if we had a racehorse that was good enough. We’d have the facilities, it’s just whether we’d have the means to support him. But that’s a long-term plan.”

No, I don’t miss riding
In a riding career that spanned nearly 20 years, Robert Thornton partnered 1,129 winners. Fifteen of those were at the Cheltenham Festival and included the Champion Hurdle on Katchit, the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Voy Por Ustedes and the World Hurdle with My Way De Solzen.

Thornton on Voy Por Ustedes, just one of the top-class jumpers he rode during his career

Thornton on Voy Por Ustedes, just one of the top-class jumpers he rode during his career

A series of bad injuries, culminating in fracturing vertebrae in his neck in April 2014, forced him out of the saddle, and he eventually announced his retirement in September 2015.

“This is a great new start,” he says. “And no, I don’t miss riding. People are always surprised when I say that, and I don’t think they believe me. But I don’t miss it at all. I certainly don’t miss driving to Southwell or Plumpton.

“The amazing thing, I’ve found – and I didn’t realise it at all when I was riding – is that now I have a life. I can do things that I never could because I was so tied to racing. Until I broke my arm really badly in March 2013, I hadn’t been on holiday for more than three or four days since I was 16. Even getting the car serviced when you are racing every day is a huge deal – now I can just ring up and book it in!

I am very lucky to have ridden the winners I did, but now it has stopped. I don’t ever get on a horse. I am advised not to and, at the moment, I have no desire to do so

“I am very lucky to have ridden the winners I did, but now it has stopped. I don’t ever get on a horse. I am advised not to – although I am advised not to ski, and I still do – and, at the moment, I have no desire to do so.

“I don’t see a lot of former colleagues any more. You just don’t really belong in that circle. I’ve been into the weighing room two or three times, but you just don’t feel right in there any more. It was a sanctuary when I was riding, but the weighing room evolves so much in a short space of time; there’d be half a dozen to a dozen lads in there I wouldn’t recognise. And they probably look at me and think, ‘Who’s that?!’”

“But I have great memories. The best day I had in the sport is hard to pinpoint, but I will never forget winning on both my first two rides at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival – Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Katchit in the Champion Hurdle.

“The best week has to be the 2007 Festival, when I was leading jockey at the meeting with four winners. It was surreal; I went into the meeting saying, ‘That’ll win, that’ll win…’ and they did. My Way De Solzen took the Arkle, Voy Por Ustedes won the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Katchit won the Triumph.

“My last ride of the week was on Andreas for Paul Nicholls in the Grand Annual. I went out on him not really caring – I’d had a great week, and I didn’t think he had a chance. I was totally relaxed about it. But I dropped him in, and he just arrived between the last two fences and went on to win by three lengths. It was an extraordinary end to the week.”

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