Robert Thornton was the happiest man on the racecourse at Exeter as he completed his miraculous return to the saddle.
Thornton was in July left in a heap on the Newton Abbot turf after a horrific fall from Hell’s Bay, which left doctors predicting a year on the sidelines for the leading jockey.
But Thornton has whittled down that absence down to exactly five months and he came close to making the perfect comeback on Causeway King in the Exeter Hurdle.
Trained by his boss, Alan King, the four-year-old made most of the running, only to be caught late on by rank outsider Salontyre (22-1), ridden by Isabel Tompsett.
“I’m delighted racing is on and it’s great to be back,” said Thornton.
“We’ll just tip away and, in some respects, it might not do me any harm to have one day on and then one day off.
“I obviously want to get on with it and when racing comes back on a full-time basis we’ll be flying.
“I’m still having a little blow and there’s no substitute to riding, but after two or three more rides I’ll be spot-on.
“When I was told it would 12 months originally, I cried, so to get back in five to the day is brilliant.”
Thornton’s two other intended rides on the card were both declared non-runners.
Trainer Bernard Llewellyn was delighted with Salontyre’s performance, but is not getting carried away.
“He’s an improving little horse and we knew he liked the snow because he ran in the Norwegian Derby,” quipped the Welsh handler.
“We bought him cheap and the owners are very pleased, so it’s great.
“We’re not going to go overboard because he’s won.
“He is what he is and he’s in at Taunton next week, so he’ll probably run there now.”
Last season’s Fred Winter scorer Sanctuaire was sent off the hot favourite but he could only finish third, having pulled for his head for much of the contest.
The absence of likely hot favourite Royal Charm meant just two runners went to post for the Harry Dutfield Memorial Novices’ Chase but that did not stop the pair fighting out a thrilling finish.
Tarablaze was sent off the 4-11 favourite in a match against 2-1 shot Hidden Keel.
The former made most under Tom O’Brien but he ran down a couple of fences in the straight to give Hidden Keel supporters real hope heading towards the final fence.
Hidden Keel and Paddy Brennan briefly hit the front on the run to the line, but Tarablaze fought back and had a length and three-quarters in hand passing the post.
Trainer Philip Hobbs said: “He was idling in front, and was never travelling that well – he also jumped a little bit left.
“Probably with a lead it wouldn’t have been a problem.”
The Reformer opened his account over timber with a battling effort in the EBF “National Hunt” Novices’ Hurdle.
The Paul Nicholls-trained 5-2 chance was always travelling well in the hands of Harry Skelton and eventually wore down 100-1 chance Shinrock Hill to score by a length and a quarter.
“He’s still very babyish but he’s done nothing but improve,” said Nicholls.
“The ground was a bit quick at Wincanton the last day but it was much better here and we thought we’d go close to winning.”
The Axminster Carpets Devon Marathon Handicap Chase went the way of the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained C’monthehammers and David England.
The gruelling four-mile contest was made slightly less testing by the omission of the four fences in the back straight and Pancake held the advantage approaching the turn for home.
But C’monthehammers (10-1) soon claimed that scalp and found plenty for pressure in the straight to beat off Kitley Hassle by five lengths.
“He jumped beautifully,” considered Twiston-Davies.
Hot Tottie (11-8 favourite) then showed plenty of steel under Ian Popham to take the herringshoes.co.uk Conditional Jockeys’ Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.
Jonjo O'Neill's Canal Bank (6-1), ridden by Richie McLernon, outmuscled Topless by just three-quarters of a length in the Children's Hospice South West Novices' Handicap Chase.
It’s A Gimme (11-4) later doubled up for the O’Neill operation with a pretty decisive success under Tony McCoy in the concluding bumper.