Tribe to perform for the Pitman troupe

A sheikh sends a recruit from the Flat to one of jumping's most formidable trainers.
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As he was channel surfing in Dubai last April, Sheikh Ahmed al Maktoum was rather taken by the unusual horse race he saw being played out in front of him. The event was called the Grand National and the Sheikh was sufficiently captured by the spectacle that he determined to win it for himself.

The youngest member of Dubai's royal family found the horse, Master Tribe, for the assignment and did not have to think twice about the trainer. He chose the person he saw lifting the trophy at Liverpool that day, Jenny Pitman.

Jump trainers will now have to face up to the challenge that their Flat brethren have encountered over the past 10 months, that is to compete against a horse that has benefited from the rays of the Emirates. The worrying message for those not on the Maktoum payroll may be that the family's interest in jump racing is growing.

Master Tribe, who will run in the yellow and black colours made gloriously notable by Mtoto, is no slouch either. The gelded son of Master Willie has useful form from Ireland in his log, including a fifth behind Barathea in the Irish 2,000 Guineas two years ago. He was stationed in the Dubaian stable of Dhruba Selvaratnam at the time Pitman was told she was to be his new protector in the quite separate code and climate of Britain's jumping scene.

"When I heard he wanted to have a horse with me it took my breath away," she said yesterday. "They [the Maktoums] have got an awful lot of good horses and we just hope we can do this one justice."

The trainer's son and assistant, Mark, has supervised the five-year- old's tentative first steps over jumps and his mother is pleased with Master Tribe's efforts on the schooling grounds. "The horse thinks about what he's doing which is what I always like to see," she said.

Master Tribe was just one of several horses paraded at Weathercock House yesterday, and certainly one of the youngest. The slow-burning policy of the Upper Lambourn yard ensures that many of the inmates compete well into their teens. Thus such as Willsford, the Scottish National winner last season, and the 1991 Gold Cup victor Garrison Savannah are once again ready for duty this campaign. When ``Garry'' does go the drainage system in that part of Berkshire had better be at optimum efficiency to cope with the flood of tears. Jenny Pitman is famously sentimental about her horses and this is a characteristic which has transmitted itself through the genes to her son. "I ride him out most mornings and I just hope that he can go and win again," Mark said yesterday as he started to seize up with emotion. "If you can be telepathic with a horse then I am with him."

One sniff that Garrison Savannah, or any of the other Weathercock House veterans, see racing as a job of clocking- on monotony, will be met by immediate retirement. "We just worship these horses," Mark said. "Everything we do is in their best interests."

Others to file past yesterday included last year's Sandown winner, Rouyan, who uncovered previously unknown bursts of speed from the press pack as he reared in excitement, the King George VI chase aspirant Lusty Light, and the biggest winner of them all last season, Royal Athlete.

The horse that attracted Master Tribe into the yard has now turned over many pages in the calendar, but the Pitmans believe he still has much to offer as persistent injury has limited his competitive mileage. No firm plans have been locked in for the gelding as he is built up to defend his title at Aintree, though it would be no surprise to see the Welsh National at Chepstow as his early-season target.

Whatever his fortunes, the longevity of Royal Athlete's career will be determined by his enthusiasm for the sport. "As with all the senior citizens in the yard, as long as he is competitive and enjoying his racing he will continue," Pitman said. And after he is gone there is always Master Tribe.