Jenny Pitman: The First Lady of racing

As a trainer, Jenny Pitman was known for her sharp tongue and historic Grand National success. Now she's retired and happily married, Martin Kelner finds her in mellower form
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The Independent Online

At last, a chance to ask someone who ought to know a key question before Saturday's Grand National. "Do the horses know they're in a race?" I ask Jenny Pitman. They are clearly aware they have to get somewhere fast, because the jockey is geeing them up, giving them little cracks with the whip, and doing all that jockey stuff, but are they actually competing with each other in the Ben Johnson-Carl Lewis sense? Does a horse give a little sidelong glance at the animal next to him, think, "I'll show you, mate," and redouble his efforts?

An equine psychologist whom I once interviewed reckoned it was unlikely. Horses race, he told me, because of their herding instinct. If one of them starts running and jumping the rest will follow suit, as an act of nature. They are not naturally competitive creatures.

By his reckoning, if a cabal of horses were to get together on Saturday morning, decide, "Blow this for a game of soldiers," and refuse to obey the signal to start, then the rest would probably do likewise, and instead of the greatest steeplechase in the world, what you would have on Grandstand on Saturday afternoon would be a bunch of horses milling aimlessly around.

Not surprisingly, this suggestion is anathema to the First Lady of racing. "Once you put on their racing plates, the horses know they are going to be in a race, and they look forward to the thrill, some more than others," she insists. More than that, she says, she has trained horses who not only know that they are about to race, but seem to know which course they are at.

Maybe not Chepstow or Fontwell Park; but Pitman had a horse called Corbiere, who won the Grand National for her in 1983, the first ever National winner for a woman trainer, and that horse would get visibly excited when he arrived at Aintree. "His little head would be darting around from side to side as soon as he recognised the surroundings," Pitman tells me.

"Oh yes, and when exactly did this realisation that he was going to be racing at Aintree hit the horse? Before or after the Keele services?" I almost ask.

Almost. I am not about to suggest to anyone as certifiably dotty about horses as Jenny Pitman that the animals are anything but human. Not when the sheaf of profiles I have of Mrs P – as her stable lads famously used to call her – is liberally sprinkled with words such as "spiky", "irascible", and "abrasive", and includes a piece by Simon Barnes of The Times describing how he almost walked out of an interview with her because of her rudeness.

In fact, she's a pussycat, a real pussycat. Maybe she has mellowed, having retired from horse racing three years ago. Weathercock House, the Berkshire stables she transformed from a rat-infested ruin to a five-star country home for horses, has now passed to her son Mark, himself a trainer of note, while she pursues a career as a writer and speaker.

She has been doing a little of that when we meet in the cavernous lounge of the Dorchester Hotel for tea and a 14-quid sandwich. Pitman has been one of the guests at an awards luncheon celebrating "unsung heroes"; kids with cancer bearing their terrible circumstances with stoicism, firemen who have pulled people out of burning buildings, lollipop ladies who turn out in all weathers to help children across the road.

"Mmm, I've just met that lovely doctor from Saturday night," she says mysteriously as she sinks into the sofa, "Very handsome." It turns out she is referring to one of the actors in the television series Casualty, who was another of the guests at the awards do.

Mrs P, now 55, can be terribly flirty at times, as we have seen in her famous double act, of blessed memory, with dishy Des on the BBC on National day. She has something of the late Joan Sims about her when she gets into this mode, talking about Des as if he were James Robertson Justice, running the hospital. "He's tender and gentle. I loved working with him on National day. I'm not really bothered about doing the TV this year. I don't fancy kissing Sue Barker, and I definitely don't fancy kissing Clare Balding." Ooh, matron.

She has an infectious chuckle, and I'm sure Pitman's brand of earthy humour is pretty well de rigueur around the stables which have been her working environment since she left school at 15 to muck out horse boxes, although in truth I have absolutely no idea what goes on at racing stables. I picture hearty country types in chaotic kitchens eating crusty bread and fried free-range eggs at six in the morning, swapping outrageous gossip and dirty stories.

Jenny Pitman and David Stait, whom she married five years ago after a 17-year engagement, fit into the picture perfectly. The description of Jenny and David's love affair in Mrs P's autobiography, published in 1998 and now, according to the author, the best-selling racing book ever, tells you as much about village life in Britain as any number of studies on the subject. He replaces her window frames, she cooks him some bacon and eggs, he does a bit of a job on her cooker door, she cooks him another meal or two, there are sick animals to be seen to, he drives a horse box somewhere for her, and what do you know, 17 years later they are married.

It is all about pitching in and being strong for each other, says Pitman, who, when she is not chuckling heartily, often seems to be on the verge of tears. "See that pillar there," she says, pointing to one of the Dorchester's Doric columns, "that's what David is to me."

This sort of talk can make you feel rather queasy, especially with David sitting next to Jenny on the sofa, finishing off her sentences, reminding her of horses' names and so on. However, delivered in the flat vowel sounds of rural Leicestershire, even high-flown declarations of eternal love sound comfortingly prosaic.

The same mix of bucolic realism and sentiment informs Pitman's autobiography. It is a rattling good yarn, covering her childhood on a small rented farm without gas, electricity, or mains water, her early marriage and later acrimonious divorce from jockey and now commentator Richard Pitman, and her brush with thyroid cancer in 1997 – from which she has now thankfully been given the all-clear – but mostly it is the heart-warming tale of one woman and several horses.

It has been followed by a novel, On the Edge, about "one woman's struggle to become a professional racehorse trainer", but Pitman denies any suggestion it is an autobiographical novel. "The publishers suggested that I change the main character from a man to a woman. I also put a bit of rumpy-pumpy in there, because that seems to go down well. It's not based on me, though. People keep wondering, and I tell them that I have had lots of affairs, but that all but two of them have had four legs."

And those are the affairs I really want to talk about. With the Grand National imminent and my investment portfolio nowhere near complete, what horse secrets can Mrs P vouchsafe? How did she gain her reputation for getting the best out of horses that left other trainers clueless? What makes a horse a winner?

"Patience. It didn't matter to me how long it took. I had a horse once called Fettimist that everyone told me would never amount to anything. You would get on the horse and it would go hell for leather all the time, almost pulling your arms out of their sockets. I thought that the horse was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So I used to ride it for a little while, and then just stop at a grass verge, let him nibble away a bit, and just talk to him. Eventually, he learnt to relax, and won a couple of races."

Simple as that, then. Find a horse on whom patience and love has been lavished in Jenny Pitman's style, and you may have found the winner. The First Lady herself will not be betting. She rarely does. Although her love for horses remains undimmed, her withdrawal from what can be a pretty spiteful game at times seems to have been an altogether Good Thing for Jenny and David.

She is writing furiously – a second novel is due out in November – and if she knows she that has been in a race, then the good news is that several hurdles have been successfully negotiated, and she is now in the straight, still galloping, but safely and contentedly.

Jenny Pitman's novel 'On the Edge' is published by Macmillan, £16.99