Racing: Blessed win helps Pitman find relief from the mother tongue

WITH A ``Yes, mother, in a moment,'' sort of sideways glance at the redoubtable, stetsoned Jenny who had come to claim him for a photo- call, Mark Pitman, eyes emotionally damp, went on describing how it felt to send out the Hennessy Gold Cup winner in his third season as a trainer. Only for a few moments, but did disobedience signify a scissoring of the apron strings?

Sure, Pitman would not have been in the winner's enclosure with Ever Blessed at Newbury on Saturday had his mother not chosen to retire, a fact that was dutifully acknowledged, but he wouldn't be the first to find that parental achievement can be an intolerable burden.

It's happened in all sports, usually to the sons of famous fathers, their aspirations undermined by inevitable comparison. Saturday saw Pitman, 33, living with the weight of racing history. Not just that his mother trained the 1984 Hennessy winner, Burrough Hill Lad, but his father Richard's ride to victory on Charlie Potheen in 1972. If it wasn't one thing it was another.

Nothing mattered as much in Pitman's mind on the eve of the race than rain. Anxious about the persistent shoulder injury that makes soft ground essential to Ever Blessed's well being, he was in the mood to do a Gene Kelly when the heavens opened. ``I was the happiest man in Berkshire when I arrived at the course for the Hennessy dinner on Friday night and it was tipping it down,'' he said.

A description followed, one that hardly fits with the lump of horseflesh that Timmy Murphy took over Newbury's fences before going clear on the flat to come home three a half lengths ahead of Spendid, who was carrying David Nicholson's hopes of going into retirement with 1,500 winners. ``Keeping him [Ever Blessed] right is like holding together a fragile piece of china,'' Pitman said. ``We never gallop him at home with another horse, otherwise he'd get competitive and put too much pressure on himself.''

There spake a young man who appears to have been attentive when the curriculum was set out and can therefore embellish his family's reputation. This was endorsed by one of Ever Blessed's owners, a Bradford businessman, Stewart Andrew, who lunged in on the day and was happy with the outcome. Ever Blessed was later quoted at 25-1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but his trainer added: "I think the bookmakers are a little rash - he has a long way to go yet."

Pitman was one of two appealing stories out there. The other was Nicholson, who officially retires from racing tomorrow. When Richard Johnson brought home the 13-8 favourite Picket Piece in the Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle it was announced as Nicholson's 1,499th winner. But was it? Nobody seemed sure, least of all Nicholson himself. There was talk of two winners in Belgium that might have escaped the scorer's scrutiny. ``We could already be there,'' the bluff trainer said.

In any case that would have spoiled a script that had Nicholson going for the landmark with Spendid in a race he almost won as Rough Tweed's jockey 37 years ago.

This was not to be. The weight of Andrew's money had helped force Ever Blessed to 9-2 favourite when the 13 runners set off over the three miles and two and a half furlongs in pale autumn sunshine.

Turning for home Ever Blessed began to perform as though Pitman should stop worrying about him. Held behind the leaders on the first circuit, he began to look less delicate by the stride, outfighting Spendid over the final three fences although Murphy, who recorded a career-best win, was mindful of the gelding's physical limitations. ``He was tiring and might have gone over if I'd asked too much,'' he said. ``But he's tough and if he was physically normal you'd be looking at an exceptional horse.''

Pitman's success led to a predictably emotional response from his mother in the winner's circle. ``For Mark to win a race like this proves everything I've said about him being ready,'' she said. Genuine enough, but time for the lady to step aside. Live on vicariously by all means but better at a discreet distance.