Racing: Cancer fails to subdue Pitman spirit

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JENNY PITMAN has spent the whole of her life fighting and, usually, winning. Now, however, she is locked in the most dramatic struggle of all.

The 52-year-old trainer talked yesterday of a cruel summer during which she has undergone two operations against cancer. The portents look good, but Pitman needs to undergo a further scan next month.

If doctors ever find that disease can be intimidated, then we will come to understand why the mutated cells within Jenny Pitman have been repelled. Like many men before them, they may have fled in terror.

"I always thought I would pull through," the trainer said at Cheltenham yesterday. "It wasn't a battle - it was a no contest. I was always going to win.

"As far as I'm concerned I'm cured. I feel fine. I'm working out again and it's all behind me. I've got one more visit to the hospital."

Pitman talked publicly about her melancholic position yesterday on the day her book, Jenny Pitman: The Autobiography, appeared on the Prestbury Park bookshelves. She concluded with the message to go forth and buy her tome.

"In June I entered hospital for the removal of what I had been told was a benign cyst from my thyroid but which turned out to be more serious than expected. The surgeons had found small signs of cancer.

"Two weeks later I had a second operation to remove the thyroid gland, followed by a course of radioiodine therapy. It is now completed. I have been supported by a wonderful gathering of family and friends. They have pushed and cajoled me when I have been worried and anxious and, to be totally honest, the word cancer is far more terrifying than the treatment I have received to cure it."

Jenny Pitman being terrified. It is not a concept easy to grasp. She is best known for her fearless opinions, often expressed to the nation on Grand National day. She is without doubt the most famous woman trainer in the land. It may be, because of the National's ledge in our sporting life, that, among the masses, she is the best known trainer of all.

Pitman, therefore, is seen as a people's champion (co-incidentally another bearer of that title, Alex Higgins, is also fighting cancer). She is alternatively known, among other things, as "The Queen Of Aintree". In one sense, this is hugely inappropriate as she was born into relative hardship in 1946, one of seven children of a small Leicestershire farmer. Electricity, gas and running water were not among the creature comforts. The battle had begun.

School kept her to the age of only 15, when she went to work as a stable girl. The path from that position to her current posting as head of the imposing Weathercock House in Upper Lambourn is pitted and virtually impassable. It has been a lifelong spur to Jenny Pitman to negotiate the chauvinism and snobbery that has come at her with headlamps blazing.

When Jenny dislikes someone it is not a notion she lets fester. The opinion gets expelled violently and immediately. Just recently came a suggestion that she probably prefers Clare Balding's presentation of BBC's racing output to that of her predecesor, Julian Wilson. "I would sooner kiss Garrison Savannah's arse than speak to him," she said.

That may not, in fact, be a great insult to Wilson. Jenny has long asserted that her telling relationships have not been with those who bring her confectionery, rather with the beasts who snuffle them out of her own palm. "I've had the greatest romances in my life with horses," she observes.

This policy was relaxed last year when David Stait, her long-term companion, became the second Mr Pitman after the former jockey, Richard. Stait was on hand to help Jennifer Susan Pitman celebrate the addition of MBE to her name in the New Year's Honours List.

Outwardly, Mrs Pitman looks as good as she has for some time. The Silk Cuts still dance between her fingers, but she has never been a drinker and also recently lost much poundage. It could be that she will fulfil an old prophecy. "I'm going to carry on until I'm 96 and then I might have four years' retirement," she once said.

Certainly, whatever she achieves will be characterised by a contempt for the press, wariness of male authority and devotion to her horses.

One of her favourites is Burrough Hill Lad, perhaps the best chaser she has trained. "He's had more operations than Joan Collins - and maybe more men working on him," is her line about the old horse.

The trainer too has had her operations and come back fists first. Her recovery is a gift to family and friends, and also to the journalists asked to plot Jenny Pitman's unpredictable, but always interesting path.


Name: Jennifer Susan Pitman.

Born: 11 June, 1946, one of seven children.

First training licence: 1975.

First winner under rules: Bonidon at Southwell on 25 August, 1975.

Cheltenham Gold Cup wins: Burrough Hill Lad 1984, Garrison Savannah 1991.

King George VI Chase win: Burrough Hill Lad 1984.

Grand National wins: Corbiere 1983, Royal Athlete 1995.

Scottish Grand National win: Willsford 1995.

Welsh National wins: Corbiere 1982, Burrough Hill Lad 1983, Stearsby 1986.

Irish Grand National win: Mudahim 1997.

Midlands National win: Watafella 1977, Willsford 1990.

Other big wins: Bueche Giorod (Massey Ferguson Gold Cup 1980), Gainsay (Ritz Club Chase 1987), Indefence (Supreme Novices' Hurdle 1996), Master Tribe (Ladbroke Hurdle 1997), Mudahim (Racing Post Chase 1997), Nahthen Lad (Sun Alliance Chase 1996), Toby Tobias (Martell Cup 1990).

Awards: OBE for services to racing, New Year's Honours list 1998.