AFTER eventually agreeing a suitable time to call and knowing that my number was incoming, Jenny Pitman answers the phone with “Hello, Psychiatric Care Unit, can I help you?” to show that she hasn’t lost any of her sparkle.
er rise from humble beginnings in the 1970’s to becoming the first woman to scale jump racing’s greatest heights – the Aintree Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup – the following decade is an extraordinary tale of a fiery personality who never failed to amaze.
The first lady of jump racing overcame incredible obstacles to become the standard bearer in a profession dominated by her male counterparts but that matters little to the 73-year-old right now as she realises that no barrier is bigger than the one facing the world right now.
Aintree fences like Becher’s Brook, Valentines’ and The Chair – which her horses regularly jumped in great style – pale in comparison to the “once in a lifetime situation” which the Coronavirus pandemic has left the world fighting.
Glad to have her signatory fags delivered to her by some old racing buddies along with some flowers and chocolate eclairs, she certainly won’t be moving from home with her dog having chewed through the cable of the electric gates.
“She’s decided to follow the government’s advice on our behalf and keep us all here,” Pitman offers, tongue firmly in cheek, before detailing her worries about the effects of Covid-19 and the fear every time the phone rings given the number of close relatives she has working in the medical profession.
“When the house phone rings, you sort of answer it and you sort of half prepare yourself and it’s a bit like the owners say when they’re coming up to big races, they see the trainers’ number flashing up and you’re not quite sure what news you’re going to get.
“It’s horrific because we don’t know where the enemy is and we don’t even know what they look like. There’s going to be an awful lot of tears shed and not necessarily just because of our age but we’re in the age group that are vulnerable.
“We’re going to lose family and friends that we’re going to be heartbroken over, that’s what the statistics tell us is going to happen. We might think that we have hardship because we have to stay at home but people’s lives are at risk.
“So many people are losing their lives with this virus that it’s so scary for everybody. When you look at hardship in your life you’ve got to take off your rose-coloured glasses and look at what’s happening around you. Death is a grim, painful thing for anyone to go through.”
‘Mrs P’ normally travels to the Cheltenham Festival – a place where she famously landed Gold Cups with Burrough Hill Lad in 1984 and Garrison Savanah in ’91 – but her and husband David Stait, who can be heard prompting in the background, stayed away this time around.
A table is normally shared with Willie Mullins’ mother Maureen, who made her 67th visit to the Festival at the Cotswolds last month, on Gold Cup day and it’s clear that Pitman is missing old friends during these unprecedented times.
“She’s unbelievable, running around like a two-year-old,” Pitman says. “I don’t know what she has for her breakfast and dinner but if you could get the secret and give it to your horses, they’d all be champions. If you’re talking to Willie say that ‘I really miss your Mum and give her a big hug from me’.”
While Tiger Roll’s Grand National hat-trick bid going up in smoke is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, she believes horses offer huge hope in dark moments and that Gordon Elliott’s loveable 10-year-old is always a symbol of inspiration.
“He has no greater admirer, that little horse, than me and my family. He is such a little honey, you could cuddle the life out of him. He is such a ballsy, wonderful lovely character, gets on with his job and minds his own business. He’s just an absolute joy,” she beams.
“He’s a great example to us all in these troubled times. When he lines up at the Grand National and he has a big task ahead and you track him through the race and he just minds his own business and soldiers on and grinds it out.
“That’s what we’re about at this moment in time. No matter where you are, we just have to soldier on. Get a picture of that little horse in your mind and look at him go about his business and try and focus on him because he’s an absolute joy to watch.”
By her own admission, Pitman had better relationships with horses than humans and famously clipped the wings of jockeys Jamie Osborne and Tony Carroll over different incidents and her bollickings are now the stuff of legend.
The equine variety never saw that side of her, however, as she cared for them better than any human could ever dream of.
“We’ve had some tragic times in our life and working with my horses was my salvation. I used to go out in the yard on a sunny afternoon when nobody was about and I liked to watch what they were doing when they were supposed to be resting,” she says.
“They’d come to the door and we’d have a little chat and then I’d mosey onto the next one and they would just be your solace and I miss that. It was therapeutic.”
Jenny Pitman with AP McCoy at Cheltenham in 1998. Julian Herbert /Allsport
Jenny Pitman with AP McCoy at Cheltenham in 1998. Julian Herbert /Allsport
‘The Missus’ defied thyroid cancer in 1997 before being an awarded an OBE the next year and she had a unique ability of bringing horses back from the brink and nursing them to full health while taming wild horses was another special skill of hers.
Egypt Mill Prince was one such horse and “would start World War III the next morning” if he’d had a day off routine work. While it took some time, he eventually came around to her way of thinking before winning nine times.
“It has often been said that I had more patience with horses than I had with people and I don’t deny that, if I had a difficult horse I’d be with it day in day out, day in, day out, until we’d come to an agreement,” she quips.
“Egypt Mill Prince was such a bad-tempered bugger, he used to stand and rear. Mark (her son) used to ride him every day and he’d stand and rear and in his temper he would drop straight to the floor on his knees and bite the ground with Mark still on him.
“I used to go and talk to him in the box and I’d say ‘Why do you want to be like that? Why do you want to be like this every day?’ and he’d look at me just so full of innocence and he was always at his worst on Monday after a day off on Sunday.
“So I thought ‘Right, we have tried lots of methods and I’m determined that you are not going to win this battle’ and so I carried on very quietly in the same way but I never gave him a day off, he went out on Sundays as well.
“He went out every day to exercise and he decided ‘Oh, I think I’d sooner be friends’. The edge was taken off him and he started to win races and people would often say that I took the edge off a few people that worked for me too.”
She got a good laugh out of a piece written by Lee Mottershead in last week’s Racing Post profiling her training career and the memories of those who had the pleasure of working under her watchful gaze.
After retiring in ’98, she went on to become an author of racing thrillers and admits that she may have to write a second “warts and all” autobiography to chronicle her colourful life in racing.
“I should write another autobiography to tell the stories I didn’t tell. Twice I was asked about people wanting to make a film about my life and what’s difficult is that they wanted to make it about the Grand National and what a hero you’ve been and the rest of it,” she outlines.
“It felt a bit too sugary and spicy to me and I think if you don’t deal with the whole picture then it gives a false impression. If somebody wants to do a story about me, do it warts and all I say because I haven’t got anything to hide and maybe on reflection, when I’m a bit older, I might have dealt with things a little differently.”
Dubbed the queen of Aintree after securing the Liverpool showpiece with Corbiere in 1983 and Royal Athlete 12 years later – as well as the ‘void’ National won by Esha Ness in ’93 – Pitman broke boundaries from her Lambourn base at Weathercock House.
The likes of Jessica Harrington and Venetia Williams have continued on the feminine fight while Rachael Blackmore is blazing a trail in the saddle but Pitman broke the mould.
Training horses was viewed as a masculine art but she ripped up that script with any denigration of her ability taken as motivation to excel even further and break further boundaries.
The late Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain, legendary trainer of three-time Grand National winner Red Rum (which Pitman describes as “invincible”), was one such critic but she always put a positive spin on words that may have hurt others.
“Old Ginger, you know what he was like about women, he was always giving me stick. ‘I could say that she’s alright as a trainer but she’s a women’ and people think because we had that banter between us that we didn’t get on but actually we did get on,” she says.
“We used to laugh about it. I called him a few right names and gave him a barracking but this is another thing. You can either take barracking as a negative and get a bit mardy and sulky about it or you can turn it into an advantage because you can have the mentality of ‘I’ll show you’.”
While gone from the training game over two decades, she is still enthused by those involved in racing and the equine humour that may be misunderstood by others.
“I’ve still got mates that have either been owners or trainers, they send you some stuff on your WhatsApp. Oh my God you couldn’t send them to your normal friends or your neighbours but racing has a sense of humour that wouldn’t fit everybody, but it’s what keeps us going.”
Given her own disciplinary record, she finds her role on the Disciplinary Panel of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) somewhat humorous to say the least but she’s delighted to still have a skin in the game.
Pitman is truly one of a kind and while she may no longer be banging in the winners, her place in the pantheon of training greats is assured and the impact she has had on racing will never be forgotten.