Of the potential narratives in today's race at Aintree, there is one that dominates all others - a last victory for the race's most famous trainer, Jenny Pitman, as she edges towards the shadows of retirement at the end of May. It is not just Pitman's record in the race - she has already won it twice, with Corbiere in 1983 and Royal Athlete in 1995 - that makes her final attempt so noteworthy, but also her prominence in the nation's perception of the event. She has had at least one runner every year since 1981, and her on-screen chemistry with the BBC's Aintree anchorman, Des Lynam, has been more potent than any soap-opera pairing.
For amidst the rough swirl of the day - the Grand National is the most- watched and most gambled-on horse race of the year - Lynam provides an orderly calm, while Pitman not only senses the nation's emotional pulse, but can also deliver an accurate diagnosis. In the chaos of 1993's void race, and the fear and confusion of 1997's bomb warning, the 16 million television viewers at home and the millions more in betting shops found Pitman articulating their own frustrations and anger in the common currencies of plain language and flowing tears. Whether she likes it or not, Mrs Pitman has become the great race's Muse, and today will be granted life membership of the Grand National Club for her services to the race.
Such achievements and distinction must have seemed an impossible horizon to the young Jennifer Harvey as she grew up in the post-war years with six siblings on a small, run-down farm in the village of Hoby in Leicestershire. For while her accounts of this happy early life generate images of HE Bates's book The Darling Buds of May, with the farm filled by animals and Jenny riding ponies at the age of two, there was little aspiration to her life. She was expected simply to embrace farm or livery work and, in time, motherhood.
At the age of 15, Jenny joined a racing yard as a stable-lass, feeding and grooming horses and mucking out their boxes. Within four years, she had met and married the rising young jockey Richard Pitman and soon gave birth to two sons, Mark and Paul. While Richard rode to some prominence on good horses such as Pendil and Lanzarote, Jenny was left to bring up the children.
The former amateur jockey Brough Scott, now a journalist and presenter, recalls the days when he "picked Richard up from their little house in Lambourn to go to the races, with Jenny left behind as a beleaguered, frustrated mother, and young Mark crawling around the kitchen floor". Scott says that he would have "offered odds of 1,000-1 at that time against Jenny Pitman becoming a media darling".
Ironically, it was the acrimonious break-up of her marriage to Richard after 10 years that eventually propelled Jenny into the long march to where she is today. Jump jockeys, perhaps because of the ever-present dangers in their sport, are mostly cavaliers when it comes to women or drink, and a high proportion of their marriages fail. So when Richard left Jenny and the children, she found salvation for the resulting trauma and depression in turning to what she knew best, the care of horses, and also - as a direct act of defiance - the professional training of them. By 1975, she had obtained a training licence, facing down what she thought was the "rudeness of the Jockey Club committee as they whispered about my prospects across a long, polished table".
Through personal loans and an overdraft, Pitman acquired Weathercock House Stables in Lambourn, and began investing in the sort of horse-flesh for which she has become most renowned: big, burly, staying steeplechasers. Her major breakthrough arrived in 1983, when Corbiere - a horse with "a big arse like a carthorse" that she had found in a field - won the Grand National. The following year, another strapping chaser, Burrough Hill Lad, won her the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Garrison Savannah, now ridden by her son Mark, repeated this feat in 1991, and was only just overhauled on the run-in of that year's Grand National, a dramatic repeat of the fate that also befell Richard Pitman on Crisp in 1973.
By now, Jenny was a highly successful, self-driven trainer, but she had also developed a buccaneering style with those in the racing press whom she thought patronising or inaccurate. She'd threatened to castrate one writer for comments about Burrough Hill Lad and, as relationships deteriorated, the combative style continued with another hack being handed an inscribed toilet roll "for all the crap you've written about me". Jockeys and racing authorities suffered similar bursts of "Pitman's Backhand", literally so in the case of jockey Jamie Osborne.
Having been deemed to have "carved up" a Pitman runner in a hurdle race at Ayr, Osborne found himself being slapped in the face by an irate "Mrs P", the nick-name by which she was now known. However, events in the 1992 Gold Cup gave many of her enemies a chance to retaliate. The Martin Pipe- trained Irish horse Carvill's Hill was a strong favourite for the race, but there was a view that his front-running style and bold jumping could be disrupted if another horse took him on up front. As soon as the race began, Pitman's 150-1 outsider Golden Freeze went alongside Carvill's Hill and matched him stride-for-stride, jump-for-jump until Carvill's Hill's jumping disintegrated.
The aftermath of the race proved to be deeply poisonous, with Pitman accused of having run Golden Freeze as a "spoiler", while she insisted he had run on his merits. There was a media feeding-frenzy, and eventually the Jockey Club held an enquiry. Though they exonerated Mrs Pitman of foul tactics, the relatively small racing community still traded bitter opinions, and Mrs Pitman even threatened to sue the BBC commentator Julian Wilson for his remarks. What was seen as her intimidatory behaviour provoked one press room wag to dub her "The Winnie Mandela of Racing".
And then came the 1993 Grand National which, even for those who had taken against Pitman, proved to be an occasion for sympathy rather than sourness. A disastrously botched start and the failure of a crude warning system saw many of the Grand National field complete the two circuits of the race without realising that the race had already been rendered void. First past the post was Esha Ness, trained by Jenny Pitman, and her tears of frustration won the hearts of the nation in the face of what looked like upper-class bungling on a "Light Brigade" scale.
Two years later, Pitman's redemption was more than completed by the victory of the 12-year-old Royal Athlete, a fragile horse that she had somehow managed to coax back to fitness and full-confidence in a memorable feat of training. No wonder Pitman was now dubbed by the tabloids "The Queen of Aintree". She has, as a matter of record, also won the Irish, Welsh and Scottish Grand Nationals with her horses, a feat that marks her down as one of the greatest racehorse trainers ever.
Two obvious post-war themes seem self-evident in Jenny Pitman's rise to such prominence - the empowerment of women, and the breaking down of class barriers. She had, on her own admission, not much of an education, and those who know her say that she is suspicious of people who come across as, "smart alecs". Similarly entrenched male-attitudes are often given short-shrift. One trainer who knows her well says that "she's not one for being impressed by titles or people with initials after their name; she just wants to deal with people who'll tell her the truth. At the centre, she's rock hard, but she's a rock in a velvet glove."
One such person has been her training assistant David Stait, whom she married two years ago after a 20-year relationship. Her decision to retire, announced with typically emotional timing on the first day of last month's Cheltenham Festival, may well be the result of a desire to enjoy the stability and fulfilment of marriage that was denied to her first time around. Pitman is also in remission from the thyroid cancer she announced last year at her award of the OBE at Buckingham Palace.
Even at a youthful 52, now may well be a good time to go. She has nothing to prove to the racing fraternity and has earned a genuine admiration, not just from those who bet, but also from a wider public for whom her epic struggle has its own resonance. Even Richard, her first husband, has graciously suggested that a victory today for her horse, Nahthen Lad, "would lift the roof off Aintree".
Touchingly, at Cheltenham, she signed off her retirement speech with an effective homily that disarmed those who felt she had upstaged the event. "I am not rich in terms of money, but in terms of all the memories I've had from racing. I have feelings that the richest person in the world couldn't buy." Win or lose today, there will be an inevitable torrent of tears on to Des Lynam's shoulder as the "Queen of Aintree" makes her formal abdication. She has already assigned her stables to her son Mark, a highly promising trainer in his own right, but perhaps the public at Aintree will not let her go so easily.
For here is a race that is not, unlike The Gold Cup or The Derby, an elite brethren of horses fighting for superiority. The Grand National is a handicap, in which all the runners, no matter what their breeding or training, have a theoretical chance of success. The public understands and exalts the inherent democracy of such an enterprise, rejoicing in the populist sentiment and lasting fame it generates. In Jenny Pitman's life and career achievements, they undoubtedly see the same struggle enshrined in human terms.
Origins: Born 11 June 1946 as Jennifer Susan Harvey, one of seven children of a farming family in Hoby, Leicestershire.
Education: Left local school at 15 to become a stable-lass.
Vital statistics: Married jockey, later commentator, Richard Pitman, in 1965. Separated, 1975. Two children, Mark and Paul. Married David Stait, assistant trainer, 1997
Career: Became a national hunt trainer in 1975, at Weathercock House Stables, Lambourn.
Grand National successes: Corbiere (1983), Royal Athlete (1995). This year, her last, running Nahthen Lad (pictured).
Other notable winners: Cheltenham Gold Cup: Borough Hill Lad (1984); Garrison Savannah (1991). Welsh National: Corbiere (1983); Borough Hill Lad (1983); Stearsby (1986). Scottish National: Willsford (1995). Irish National: Mudahim (1997)
She says: "Horses are more generous than humans, they give everything."Reuse content