Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton’s last ride in public was very nearly ten years ago, but the approach of the Cheltenham Festival inevitably stirs memories of the days when he regularly featured among the meeting’s top jockeys. Thornton is still in the all-time top 12 with an impressive 16 wins, and he was crowned top rider in 2007 after Grade 1 strikes for Alan King on his great favourites Katchit, Voy Por Ustedes and My Way De Solzen were topped up by a less expected handicap success on Andreas for Paul Nicholls. He had no plan for life after racing, but circumstances drew him to the fledgling Apple Tree Stud, near Stow-on-the-Wold, which was a building site when he first became involved but where he was soon appointed Racing and Stud Manager. It is now a thriving concern, and he is also behind a revolutionary new racing shoe.

I was lucky to ride quite a few winners at the Cheltenham Festival, and 2007 was a wonderful year for me. I went there thinking Katchit, My Way De Solzen and Voy Por Ustedes might all win, and they did. I also won the Grand Annual on Andreas, and with four winners I was the meeting’s top rider. It wouldn’t be enough now, would it? In my day nobody had the sort of monopoly of the good horses that Willie Mullins has, and if I was riding now I certainly wouldn’t be going with the four or five fancied rides that I used to have. You have to take your hat off to Willie, but I’d love to see the pendulum swing back so that more trainers and jockeys have realistic chances.

My most satisfying Festival win was probably My Way De Solzen in the Arkle. It seemed a ridiculous idea to many, as he’d won the Stayers’ Hurdle the year before, and I remember Michael Dickinson publicly criticising Alan for dropping him back, which was upsetting. I can’t take any credit for choosing the Arkle, but it worked out brilliantly, and as far as I was concerned when My Way crossed the line, he was going to win the following year’s Gold Cup. It didn’t turn out like that as he had one or two issues, but that’s how good he felt. Voy Por was obviously in my top three too, but he needed a bit of managing whereas My Way was push-button. Katchit wasn’t quite push-button, but he’d give you whatever you asked for.

I’m one of the lucky ones as it took me no time at all to adjust to not riding any more. I remember lying in the grass with a broken neck at Chepstow – it was April 28, 2014 at ten past eight – thinking ‘I’m never doing that again’. Actually, I did try to come back, because I was from the old school inasmuch as I didn’t think there was anything else I could do, and if you were seen to be looking at something else trainers thought you were taking your eye off the ball. But I remember driving down to London more than a year later to be passed to ride again, and it was honestly a relief when they wouldn’t sign me off. I wanted to retire there and then, so it didn’t bother me.

I got involved with the Apple Tree Stud by default really, as I’d never thought about stud work and didn’t know much about Flat racing. Two or three years before Apple Tree came about I’d won the Haldon Gold Cup on Medermit for owner Paul Dunckley. Sensing that all wasn’t well in my personal life, Paul offered me a barn to live in, then later while I was recovering from the Chepstow fall he asked me to help on a consultancy basis. I enjoyed being involved in setting things up and then Paul then asked if I’d run the stud for him, which with help from JETS and others is what I did. I had to learn fast on the job, but with horses you are never not learning.

I’d always been very focused on the jumps, and that was the direction we were going in at first, but it’s a long old process. The Flat requires a greater investment, but things happen so much quicker and it’s so much more lucrative. Luckily Paul had the resources to buy some very nice mares. Only Astonishing has worked out of the more expensive ones, breeding three black-type winners, but we were probably guilty in the beginning of over-covering them, sending them to Frankel for example when they didn’t necessarily merit it. We are operating at a high level though and this year we’ve got mares going to stallions like Baaeed, Pinatubo and Sea The Stars, the last of them a foal share, which is perfect for us.

Paul has put a lot of money into the Apple Tree Stud and facilities are second to none, but it’s a commercial operation and has to wash its face, which it does. Paul has had some bad luck – crises even – but he takes it on the chin and we keep moving forward. I thought we’d be winning a Guineas or a Derby by now, which shows how naive I was, but these things take 20-plus years, especially with a farm started from scratch. We had a very good year at the sales two years ago, and last year we had an Oasis Dream which sold well, but two of the others didn’t make what I thought they should. In the beginning the idea was to keep the fillies and sell the colts, but we’ve got too many now. You can’t be seen to just sell the ones you don’t want, so we sell some of our best stock too. If they don’t fetch what they should we put them in training and hopefully sell them when they win a maiden. We buy some too and they are spread around top trainers like Roger Varian and Archie Watson. We have horses too with Alan of course.

I’m in the stud business with Apple Tree very much for the long term, as is Paul, but with our farrier Aron Tyler I’m also co-founder of Equishox, the vulcanised rubber-coated shoes. They reduce concussion and jar, and the vibration going up the limb, which reduces the risk of stress fractures and so on. They are much kinder on the joints as they cushion the hooves and provide a remarkable level of shock absorption. They are designed mainly for welfare purposes, but we are getting great results and at the time of this interview I think it’s 12 winners from 28 runners. Alan likes them and has had three winners with them, Martin Keighley trained the first winner in them, and Graeme McPherson and David Killahane love them as their five runners in them all won! We are approved by the BHA, the IHRB and the National Steeplechase Association in the USA, and we are in talks for approval for Flat racing there, as well as in Australia and France. We think the shoes are game changers.