Racing: No fence is too big for her: Saturday's Grand National will mark the 10th anniversary of Jenny Pitman's becoming the first woman to train the winner of the world's greatest steeplechase. She's battling as hard as ever today. Paul Hayward reports

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The Independent Online
FORGOTTEN stable, forgotten horse. It would be just like the Grand National to let Jenny Pitman win on Saturday with an ex-invalid called Royal Athlete, 10 years after she became the first woman trainer to take the world's toughest race. Acrimony is at last ceasing to be the dominant theme of her winters.

For a year now, many in racing have been crossing the metaphorical road at the sight of Pitman's withering approach. Her embattled phase began with the Golden Freeze-Carvill's Hill controversy at last year's Gold Cup, and continued with an exodus of horses from her stable over the summer and a vow of silence that ended all communication with the media. Like a certain Premier League manager, she has resembled an irascible, raging ex-genius presiding over a declining team amid an air of impenetrable gloom.

Not any longer. The 'do not approach' sign may still be round Pitman's formidable neck, but the supposed crocks with which she entered the season are enjoying a renaissance. Royal Athlete, an excellent third in the Gold Cup, has shot through the National betting to become 7-1 favourite, while Garrison Savannah, caught on the Aintree run-in by Seagram two years ago, is recovering his former zest and is no worse than sixth (at 20-1) in the betting.

This is a stable inseparably associated with the challenges of Aintree. When Corbiere took the race in 1983, it was an almost absurdly romantic exposition of the National's appeal. Jenny, remember, had once been married to Richard Pitman - he of Crisp-Red Rum fame - but had started training in a derelict 19-box yard with no drains and a crew of just eight horses.

In Corbiere, too, it was possible to locate the iron-heart qualities that were required for victory over those Himalayan fences. 'When he was learning, his gallop was like a baby elephant's. Even the labrador could go faster,' Pitman remembered of Corbiere. 'But whatever the weather, come snow or driving rain on the downs, he never turned his head away but always faced it head on.' After the race, it took four people 16 hours each to open all the congratulatory mail from around the world.

Grand National horses never die, they just fade through the betting ranks until they attract only nostalgia money. Garrison Savannah, though, is back near the front of the starting grid long after his chance had apparently been lost in the drama of that floppy-legged capitulation to Seagram.

For Richard Pitman, read Mark. Garrison Savannah was clear jumping the last and looked a certainty to become the first horse since Golden Miller in 1934 to complete the Gold Cup-Grand National double. Mark Pitman would at last avenge the memory of Red Rum grinding past his father on Crisp. But there were 494 yards to the post, and through the binoculars you could see Garrison Savannah's blue blinkers moving more slowly, and the little chestnut Seagram thumping towards the elbow with script-spoiling intent. Garrison Savannah was passed just 100 yards from the line.

All part of the equation. But it was to be virtually the last appearance of the Pitman team at the forefront of the main events. The following season yielded just 50 winners. The flow of prime bloodstock from Ireland slowed. There were suggestions that Pitman's loyalty to Mark as stable jockey had cost her horses, and the Carvill's Hill debate rumbled on, followed by a news blackout.

Pitman is as intimidating physically as she is verbally. She once thumped the jockey Jamie Osborne for allegedly 'cutting up' one of her horses in a race, and clerks of the course have been known to hide in toilets, Arthur Daley-like, rather than face one of her tirades about inaccurate going forecasts. But this season, with just 26 winners and pounds 200,000 in prize-money to her credit, Pitman has looked more sombre than frightening: heavy-eyed, exasperated, simmering.

Even Desmond Lynam could have his work cut out securing pre-race interviews from her, though Mark Pitman says, 'I'm sure she'll have a word on television.' So far, his mother's stentorian tones have been lost not only to newspapers, but the BBC and Channel 4, too.

The National, though, is something different. It is the race where her undoubted affection for her horses is most severely stretched by the perils of the course itself. It is also the perfect medium for demonstrating how patient she is in nurturing fitness, and how the long-distance steeplechaser, at flight in open country, is the embodiment of her art.

Despite her difficulties this season, Saturday's field could contain as many as four Pitman runners. Those old sloggers Willsford and Esha Ness are still on the list of possibles, but it is Royal Athlete and Garrison Savannah who are most likely to restore the Pitman operation to its former repute. Royal Athlete was all but forgotten after disappearing with injury from April 1990, but his encouraging performance at Cheltenham and his position in the weights are more than enough to justify the confidence of his supporters.

Of Royal Athlete, Mark Pitman says: 'He's only had two runs over fences in the last three years, but we were delighted with his fourth place in the Racing Post Chase, and he ran a great race in the Gold Cup. He does look thrown- in at the weights, but then how many horses have had that said about them and then got beat? Liverpool is still a law unto itself, even though the course has been made easier.' Garrison Savannah, he thinks, would have been in the first three in the Gold Cup but for a mistake at the final ditch.

'They're more generous than humans. They give everything,' Jenny Pitman once said of racehorses, and nowhere is that theory better tested than at Aintree when the tapes go up and 30 fences and four and a half miles of terrain stretch ahead. With 'everything' at stake on Saturday, she really does need them to give their all.

(Photographs omitted)