Retirement has not doused the Pitman fire

'That nonsense on Newsnight ... don't you find that men are sometimes guilty of having discussions with their testicles rather than their brains?'

In her comfortable, rambling home, somewhere in the sticks between Newbury and Hungerford, Jenny Pitman is making me a cup of tea. At my feet, Freddie the lugubrious greyhound, who "cost more than Garrison Savannah," is pleading to be stroked. Outside, Pitman's husband, David Stait, is busily chopping wood. Retirement looks pretty cosy for 53-year-old Pitman, although appearances can be deceptive. She says she sometimes wonders how she found time for a job, with all the functions, openings, presentations, speeches and whatnot. Perhaps there is no such thing as retirement for a national institution.

In her comfortable, rambling home, somewhere in the sticks between Newbury and Hungerford, Jenny Pitman is making me a cup of tea. At my feet, Freddie the lugubrious greyhound, who "cost more than Garrison Savannah," is pleading to be stroked. Outside, Pitman's husband, David Stait, is busily chopping wood. Retirement looks pretty cosy for 53-year-old Pitman, although appearances can be deceptive. She says she sometimes wonders how she found time for a job, with all the functions, openings, presentations, speeches and whatnot. Perhaps there is no such thing as retirement for a national institution.

We leave Freddie lugubing by the stove and move through to the living room, where the 3.10 at Plumpton has just got underway. In this house, the Racing Channel stops for no man. The phone rings. Pitman chats merrily to a friend, giving me time to study her impressive trophy cabinet. I overhear her praising her husband. "He's a good bloke, a real good bloke," she says. "And they are like rocking-horse droppings - there ain't many of them about."

She should know, having battled against pretty long odds in the overwhelmingly male world of National Hunt racing. In her admirably candid book, Jenny Pitman - The Autobiography (Bantam Books), which has been recently revised and updated, she recalls the day in 1975 when she was summoned to the Jockey Club's plush headquarters in Portman Square. Would the racing establishment deign to grant her a trainer's licence? A handful of women had already become licensed trainers, yet it was not so many years since Norah Wilmot's application had been turned down with the priceless edict: "Women are not persons within the meaning of the Rules."

Anyway, Pitman got her licence and the rest is Cheltenham Festival, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Grand National history. Has the Jockey Club's attitude to women changed much in the 25 years since, I wonder? "Oh yes. Women have senior roles in racing now, and there are women in disciplinary [jobs] at Portman Square. So that's changed things. When I started, I would sometimes want paper bedding instead of shavings for my horses, and the officials would say: 'Take your own.' Well, if you're going up to Ayr with four horses on your box, that's maybe eight bales of paper. It was needless obstructiveness. Women are much better."

Pitman's gender was a factor, she believes, in the most controversial incident of her career. Following the 1992 Cheltenham Gold Cup she was accused of running her horse, Golden Freeze, as a "spoiler," deliberately ruining the chances of the hot favourite, Carvill's Hill. She was later officially exonerated. But her main accuser, as she saw it, was the BBC commentator Julian Wilson, and they didn't speak for years afterwards. "Julian was well out of order," she says. Is the hatchet now buried? "I thought it was, but he can still come out with some very unnecessary comments," she sighs. "Don't you find that some of these public schoolboys can be a bit spiteful like that? I just think they ain't proper men. I do like proper men. My sister's husband went to Eton, but he's a proper bloke."

This plain-speaking daughter of a Leicestershire farmer does not appear to have wilted in retirement. She was horrified when the trainer Charlie Brooks recently claimed that he knew of horses being doped in an attempt to fix races.

"I never saw that. Never. And if I was still training I would have written to the Jockey Club to protest. They should have asked Charlie to substantiate what he said. It was a terrible slur on trainers. And then I saw him on Newsnight saying that jockeys must stay as light as they are until we breed a different type of horse. That's nonsense too. Are we going to carry on having little flat jockeys making themselves sick, getting bulimic, because of some rubbish spouted on Newsnight ? Unfortunately, Mr Paxman doesn't understand horses. So he and Charlie had a meaningless argument. Don't you find that men are sometimes guilty of having discussions with their testicles rather than their brains?"

I consider mounting a robust defence of my sex, but the question is obviously meant rhetorically. However, lest it be thought that she has it in for the male species (she also talks pretty witheringly about her first husband, the ex-jockey, trainer and broadcaster Richard Pitman), it should be pointed out that some of her favourite people are men. Not only her second husband, David, but also her sons Paul, an accountant, and Mark, her former assistant, now a fully-fledged trainer in his own right and clearly a chip off the old block. Not to mention her Aintree amour, Des Lynam.

She must miss the prospect of saddling a third Grand National winner, to follow in the hoofprints of Corbiere, Royal Athlete, and for that matter Esha Ness, the 1993 winner who never was. At any rate, she must have found it desperately hard to leave her beloved Weathercock House, her stables in nearby Upper Lambourn? "Yes, but it was much less painful because it was Mark who went into Weathercock. And the horses haven't forgotten me. I've become like a grandparent, I get all the joy and not too much of the grief. Having said that, Mark rings up most days. Last week he rang three times one day, and asked if I could come over. We looked at all the problem horses. They're just like a football team, you know. Pulled muscles, strains, all that sort of thing."

Mark is showing enormous promise as a trainer, and has already succeeded where his mother failed, coaxing the idiosyncratic Nahthen Lad to a big win at Ascot 10 days ago. When I mention this, Pitman knows what's coming, and insists she will be thrilled if Mark eclipses her record. "It's not a competition. I do think men have a different point of view about their sons taking over. It becomes a stag situation. But I'm a mother. If he trains five Grand National winners and 10 Gold Cup winners, I'll be the proudest person on earth."

She obviously means this sincerely, yet can't quite resist pointing out that she was the one who advised Mark to run Nahthen Lad at Ascot rather than Wetherby, on the basis that he tends to perform better nearer to home. "You can offer advice without it appearing to be an instruction," she says. "My dad, for instance, always spoke to us in parables."

Her father is now 85 and going strong. Even in Pitman's pomp as a trainer he would wander round the stables at Weathercock, returning after an hour or so to say pointedly that he'd made some "observations". "And you'd think, 'bloody hell, he's seen something he's not happy with,' " says Pitman, recalling an occasion when her father remarked that The Illywhacker was pulling his hay rather than snatching it, suggesting that there was something wrong in his mouth. Eventually, a bastard tooth was discovered. Both the dentist and the vet had missed it, but at the old man's insistence the vet looked again. And sure enough... evidently, Pitman's celebrated rapport with horses was honed at her father's knee.

Her horses, she adds without embarrassment, "have always been good mates to me." And two years ago, when she was diagnosed as having throat cancer (from which she has since fully recovered), they became more important than ever. "They were therapy, they were medication, they've been everything." She was delighted to be told recently that when Mark makes his evening tour of the stables, he feels the horses just as she used to. "Not all trainers do that, but I used to love feeling them, rather like a tailor feels top-quality cloth. They feel wonderful when they're in rip-roaring nick." Her devotion has sometimes, of course, been rewarded with a sharp kick. "Yes. But I've not been kicked or bitten by as many horses as I have people, that's for sure." There is a heavy rumble. It is Pitman, chuckling.

The horse she was closest to was Corbiere, winner of the 1983 Grand National. Indeed she becomes a little weepy remembering him. "He wasn't a very fast runner, but he was a brilliant jumper. And more than anything, he was just so honest. I'm close to Garrison Savannah too, but for different reasons. He's an awkward, cantankerous old bastard. Looking at a stableful of horses is like looking at a classroom of kids. They're all individuals, and it's often a question of harnessing the wayward ones, like Garrison Savannah or Nahthen Lad. Now he was naughty. He would actually want to hurt you.

"But Corbiere... it absolutely broke my heart when he died. He had a problem with his circulation. He always used to call me at evening stables, he'd whinny to me when I was a couple of boxes away, but he hadn't been doing it and I'd been worried. But he had just started doing it again. Anyway, the farrier was coming in to shoe him one Saturday when I was at Chepstow. They rang me at the races. The vet said his feet were in bad shape and the fairest thing would be to put him down. I was wrecked. It was so unexpected. And I made a really bad decision. I said I didn't want him there when I got home. I've regretted that ever since. I should have been there with him. And I should have had him cremated, and kept him at home."

Pitman wipes away a tear. She's an old softie underneath, who never, ever misses National Velvet. There are some, though, who have not managed to find a way through the tough exterior. And some who have fallen foul of more than her tongue. In 1990, at Ayr, she notoriously slapped the face of the jockey Jamie Osborne, whom she believed guilty of dangerous riding. She was fined £200 for bringing racing into disrepute. Does she regret the slap? "No, he deserved it and knows he did. I regret being fined for bringing the game into disrepute, but at the end of the day, it's not as if I did it in the public enclosure, or socked him as he got off his horse."

Indeed. And in any case, whether she was justified or not, the incident adds yet more lustre to the Jenny Pitman legend. I don't think it's too melodramatic to say that racing will not see her like again.

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