The most cheerless of midwinter Mondays, relieved only by the thinnest of gruel – but for two men at opposite ends of their profession, it felt like a banquet. Only a handful of paying customers gave the betting shop lantern show at Southwell yesterday the dignity of live spectator sport. But those that did show up witnessed landmark achievements for both Mark Johnston, who celebrated his 2,000th success, and Tim Pitt, who saddled a first winner since his own career seemed menaced by disaster.
The loss of such an obvious young talent, so soon into its flowering, would have shown the impatient values of the modern Turf in a most degrading light. To those unfamiliar with the depth of his grounding, Pitt seemed to rise without trace in 2006. Formerly assistant to John Gosden and Gerard Butler, he announced himself with the shock success of Admiral in the Chester Cup, and then transformed a former hurdler, Les Arcs, into a Group One sprinter. Unfortunately, his partnership with Willie McKay, the football agent who had appointed him to train at stables near Doncaster, did not prove to have been built on rock. When the yard lost its form, it soon turned to quicksand, and last summer Pitt was on his way.
He found a yard in Malton, and moved his wife and young children into a caravan. "We started out on September 1st with one horse and a load of promises," Pitt said yesterday. But one of those promises turned out to be Basalt, discarded from Ballydoyle at the sales last year and discovered by an old friend, Joe Burke. Pitt managed to pick him up for 16,000 guineas, and though it took him two months to find an owner, yesterday he showed that his touch has not been diminished by the trials of the last year. Heavily backed, Basalt won his maiden by no fewer than nine lengths.
"He did jog up a bit stiff and sore at the sales," Pitt said. "But after we cut him, and a good farrier did some work on his feet, I kept asking: 'Where's the catch with this horse?' He has a lovely cruising speed, and at the same time will stay longer than the mother-in-law. I know he hasn't beaten much here, but he will come on a lot for the run mentally. While it might sound pie in the sky, I'd love to get him into the bottom of the weights in a Chester Cup."
Pitt has now scraped together 14 horses and plans to welcome another one, a filly from Ireland, at 4am today. "We do have a few two-year-olds, though I must say none of them were born before April," he said. "But I know the best type of advertisement is winners, and that is what I will keep looking for."
The milestone passed by Johnston when Leamington won at the same meeting must seem impossibly remote to Pitt. But when he saddled the first of his 2,000 winners, 21 years ago, Johnston was himself based on a bombing range in Lincolnshire. Since moving to Middleham, of course, the Scotsman has restored pride to the North, becoming its most successful Flat trainer of modern times, and a welcome, pungent intelligence to the national racing landscape.
"There is more racing now and more opportunities," Johnston said. "On the other hand we started with one winner in the first year, and five in the second, so the last 1,000 in particular has come very quickly indeed."
Though he has sent out a century of winners for a record 14 consecutive seasons, he is hankering for another elite performer in the mould of his British Classic winners, Mister Baileys and Attraction, or the charismatic stayer Double Trigger. "It was disappointing that last year was our highest number of winners but our lowest position in the trainers' table for more than 10 years," he said. In other words, he is not about to succumb to complacency.
Whether measured by quality or quantity, the dominant National Hunt trainer of the day is Paul Nicholls, who yesterday entered both Kauto Star and Denman for the Aon Chase at Newbury on Saturday. With a small field guaranteed, this race remains the priority for Denman, with Kauto Star standing by only as insurance. Nicholls also hopes to win the valuable handicap hurdle on the card, the Totesport Trophy, with Five Dream. The sponsors make his novice their 9-2 favourite.
Nap: If Only I Knew (Sedgefield 1.50)
NB: Orpen's Art (Southwell 4.40)