Pitman consumed by her passions

FACE TO FACE One of Britain's most successful trainers talks to Ian Stafford
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The Independent Online
There are two contrasting sides to Jenny Pitman, successful racehorse trainer, mother, and general thorn in the side of the male-dominated Establishment that still runs the sport of kings.

Her public persona is by far the better known side of this remarkable woman, who will be going for her second Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury this afternoon with Superior Finish.

Described, depending who you talk to, as bossy, rude or just downright terrifying, she has never been afraid to speak her mind on subjects that leave her male peers squirming around in embarrassment and rage. You can almost hear the reaction when she has another pop at them. "That bloody woman's at it again!"

Jamie Osborne felt the full force of the famous Pitman temper when, feeling that he pushed one of her horses too hard in finishing a race, she slapped his face in the winner's enclosure in front of a packed racing crowd. No wonder, then, that when people heard I was paying her a visit, the most common remark was "Good luck, you'll need it."

Yet there is another, deeper and almost too sensitive side to one of the most successful national hunt trainers in the business. If ever this was underlined then it was at the wedding reception of her son Mark, which was held in a marquee at the famous Pitman home, Weathercock House, in Lambourn.

She took the microphone that night and began a well-intentioned speech aimed at thanking all the owners at the reception who had backed her family through thick and thin. She tried, three times, to get the words out, but in the end gave in to her emotions, and had to be led back to her seat in tears by David Stait, her long-term partner. She mocked herself later for the spectacle, but her actions spoke much louder than any words.

This mixture of success, single-mindedness and vulnerability, judging by the proposal she received this week, is clearly an attractive cocktail to some. "This 71-year-old man wrote me a letter asking for my hand in marriage," she said gleefully. "My vet said I should take up the offer. For some reason I get a lot of love letters, but they're mainly from men between 70 and 90 years old. I might take one up and disappear to Barbados, but it won't be the bloke who sent pictures of himself in compromising positions. I usually write back, thanking them for their support, but I ignored him."

She does not actually have much time for people, though, except for her close family and friends who have remained loyal to her. A poor upbringing on a Leicestershire farm, a divorce from the former jockey and racing broadcaster Richard Pitman, a tough beginning in training, hampered by a lack of funds, facilities, and a universal reluctance to help out a woman who decided to go it alone, all hardened both her resolve to succeed, and her determination never to show any weakness - at least not in public.

"Oh, believe me, when I go racing, I put on my suit of armour, and I don't take it off again until I'm safely back home," she said. "That's when I'll cry if a horse of mine is injured. But never at a course. That would only give the men a chance to put it down to being a woman. It's been a stuffy man's world for too long, but at last a few women are making their way in the sport's administration and they actually want to help you out."

This talk is typical of her. When Weathercock House lost a substantial number of horses in 1993, including 16 removed by the owners Bill and Shirley Robbins, the obituaries for her career were being written. She read them, heard the talk in the paddock, and rolled up her sleeves.

"Oh sure, the death bells were sounding for me two years ago. People were queuing up to ring them. The country was still recovering from the recession, and the last thing anyone wanted to buy was a racehorse. I had a good kicking. It was like being at the bottom of a rugby scrum, but what people didn't realise was that I've been in worse situations than that.

"When I came here 20 years ago with the kids, after the divorce, we had rats running around, the roof falling in, no drains, and hot water supplied by boiling pans. In boxing terms, I was knocked down on the canvas for a count of nine. So the problems of two years ago were nothing in comparison. I think somebody summed it up to Dave, the other day at the races. He said: 'It's amazing how the Mrs has picked herself up. But then again, she's always been at her most dangerous when she's on the ropes.' You see, it's not in me to quit."

Indeed it is not. Today she pins her hopes on Superior Finish, hopes boosted by a good start to the season and last year's victories in both the Grand National and Scottish National, courtesy of Royal Athlete and Willsford. These triumphs merely added to her list of big-race successes, which include the National in 1983 with Corbiere, making her the first woman to train a National winner, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the following year with Burrough Hill Lad, and a second Gold Cup in 1991, thanks to Garrison Savannah, who also finished second in the National a month later. Add to this her three Welsh Nationals, her King George VI and Martell Cups, plus her win in the 1993 Grand National that never was, and she possesses a curriculum vitae which cannot be ignored.

Except it seems, it still is. "I think I'm now accepted as a good trainer," she said. "But when discussions take place, about the safety of courses, the siting of fences or, indeed, about anything to do with national hunt racing. I can't remember ever being asked my views by anyone in racing.

"I keep seeing this jockey, or that trainer, being asked for opinions by various commissions and boards, and they're all male. I don't think I've ever been accepted and I don't suppose I ever will be. Maybe it's because I'm not articulate or well-educated, and I say what I think. Sometimes it doesn't go down too well."

You can say that again. Take, for example, her view about Peter Scudamore, writer, television commentator and, of course, one of the most successful jump jockeys of all time.

"I heard Scudamore on Desert Island Discs the other week," she said. "He said that anyone who tries to relate psychology to training horses should realise that it's a load of nonsense. Well, I feel very sad that someone could have worked with horses for as long as he did could still not get the understanding out of them!"

Scudamore's mistake was to criticise horses which, in Pitman's book, is a cardinal sin. She can take or leave people, but never horses, and this is why her views may be seen as forthright, but are never the less always with the horse's welfare in mind.

She is so concerned about the treatment of racehorses that, following on from the television documentary last month, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, she is now calling for a radical move in racing.

"Let's just say that there are stables where big improvements are needed in terms of caring for the horses," she said. "I've had horses returned to me from those stables in an appalling state. I want to see random, and unannounced inspections at every stable at least every year.

"The inspector, appointed by the Jockey Club, should have a computer list of all the horses in the stables and see all of them. He or she will know about injured horses, and demand to see them and, if necessary, vets' reports as well. If any yard doesn't come up to scratch, then the trainer should be cautioned, and if that doesn't work, the trainer should be slapped hard.

"The sport should stand up and address problems like this, instead of sitting down, as if it's wearing a leaking nappy. The Jockey Club should admit this is a problem area, cut out the red wine for lunch, and appoint someone to deal with it."

A mischievous smile then follows. "Come to think about it, I'd be perfect for the job when, or if, I retire from this game. I've always wanted one of their tin badges."

She has other concerns, too, with racing. "Trainers are being blamed by the clerks of the courses for not running our horses because the ground is too dangerous. They may not be happy with just three horses entering pounds 40,000 races, but we have a moral obligation to the horse and to the owner's investment, and until they improve course conditions, that's the way it's going to stay.

"I was arguing with a clerk last year about this, and in the end I asked him if he could lend me a match. When he asked me why, I told him I wanted to light it and throw it in his car's petrol tank, because that's what his course would do to my horse."

Then there is summer jump racing. "It's not been in the horse's interest," she said. "It may give smaller trainers a chance, but it's immoral to run big, jumping horses on hard ground. I get owners who watch these summer meetings on TV and then tell me how glad they are that their horses are out in my field. The two summer months of rest are when many young horses change from boys to men, and by busting them up on summer courses we're not giving them a chance to develop. It also means that we have a stupid calendar now, where nobody knows when the meetings are any more."

Even smaller issues do not escape the Pitman eye. "Racecourse officials have either got to stop wearing their fluorescent coats, or move from the inside to the outside of the course," she said. "Horses go crazy when they see those coats. I've written this down for a trainer to use in a meeting which, inevitably, I haven't been invited to."

There then follows a knowing look: "I do a lot of undercover work like that," which she follows with an explanation. "It's all because I'm passionate about horses. All I've ever wanted to do, except for becoming a traveller and roaming the countryside with my father in a caravan, is to be with horses, and I'll always put them first."

Try as some might, there seems to be no stopping Pitman, and while her success on the course continues, and with her son and assistant trainer, Mark, waiting in the wings to take over at Weathercock House, the Pitman family looks set to remain in the forefront of national hunt racing, for some time yet.

Bad news for the admin men, good news for the horses.