Craig Thornton will begin a new chapter of his life in China this week. A highly regarded international jumps jockey in his past, Thornton has trained the winners of more than 100 races in New Zealand in a career spanning 17 years.
However, most recently Thornton has endured a 16-month hiatus from hands-on horsemanship following the sale of his Cambridge-based property to Andrew Campbell in October 2017. “It wasn’t that I was sick of training, I love training, I’ve always enjoyed it my whole life,” Thornton said. “It was just that Andrew came along with an offer that I couldn’t refuse and I wasn’t going that great at the time, so it was a chance to consolidate things.
“Since then I’ve been waiting for something to come up really and I’ve had a year away from the horses and now I’m ready to get my teeth back into it.”
Thornton will get the opportunity to do just that having accepted a 12-month contract as the principal trainer of a stable of 40 horses for Mr Hongwei Chen in China, initially spending two months in Wuhan province before travelling to Yulong Racecourse in Shanxi province.
Chen is a coal mining magnate from Inner-Mongolia who has Thoroughbred interests globally, including in New Zealand, where his horses carry the ‘Not Usual’ prefix and race under the Horse Feng Bloodstock banner.
Thornton travelled to China on Monday with Alex Teng, of Horse Feng Bloodstock, who will spend two weeks with Thornton to help him settle into his new role.
Thornton had travelled to China once before - to attend the opening of Khorchin Racecourse in Inner Mongolia - and he’s also sought advice from others who know the area well. “I’ve spoken to Graham Forbes, who trained up there and Luke Danis, Darren Danis’s father who’s training up there now and they’ve given me pretty good insight in to what to expect,” he said.
“They run on sand tracks and it can get quite deep, so I’ll have to figure out what kind of horses suit best and how to train them for it. It’s going to be a learning curve for me, but I think stockmanship is universal, horses are all I know and it’s all I’m qualified to do, so hopefully I can adapt.”
Having previously flown the New Zealand flag in North America, Japan and Australia as a jumps jockey, Thornton is taking a patriotic approach to his new vocation.
“I kind of feel like I’m representing New Zealand, and I’m proud of that and I’m looking forward to the challenge. Hopefully I can bring some distinction to the New Zealand-bred horses up there,” he said.
“I want to do well for the people who sell their horses to China too. I’ll keep them updated on any successes that come so they can follow the horses that they’ve sold. I’m excited, it’s a challenge, it’s an adventure, it’s another chapter and I’m looking forward to it.”