Rolling back the years to the first fe­male trainer of a Grand Na­tional win­ner

Yorkshire Post - Sports Monday - - FRONT PAGE - Tom Rich­mond By­gones ■ Email:­ ■ Twit­ter: @Opin­ionYP

JENNY PIT­MAN will al­ways be re­mem­bered as the first woman to train the win­ner of the Grand Na­tional – the world’s most fa­mous horse race.

Yet, 35 years af­ter Cor­biere’s land­mark vic­tory in 1983, the win, re­calls Pit­man, was not re­garded as a big break­through for sportswomen.

“The gen­eral con­sen­sus at the time was that we were go­ing to lose the Na­tional,” she told The York­shire Post in an ex­clu­sive in­terview.

“The fact a woman had won it didn’t hold great store be­cause they could say ‘you were lucky’.

“We had to win the Chel­tenham Gold Cup the fol­low­ing year with Bur­rough Hill Lad for rac­ing to re­alise we hadn’t been mess­ing about.”

It did not end there. A sec­ond Gold Cup came cour­tesy of Gar­ri­son Sa­van­nah, rid­den by her son Mark, be­fore Royal Ath­lete won the 1995 Na­tional.

Pit­man does not dwell on the ‘Na­tional that never was’ 25 years ago when her Esha Ness was first past the post in the void race.

Now 71, her fam­ily joke that her home is a shrine to Cor­biere be­cause of the num­ber of pho­tos and pic­tures.

She’s in­cred­u­lous at the gen­tle mock­ing. “What else are you go­ing to put on your walls?” she asks.

“I want some­thing that brings me im­mense plea­sure. Great works of art cost mil­lions. Why would I want one? I’ve a pic­ture of Bur­rough Hill Lad, Gar­ri­son Sa­van­nah and Cor­biere. It’s worth mil­lions to me.”

Yet, while Vene­tia Wil­liams and Bin­g­ley’s Sue Smith have fol­lowed Pit­man’s ex­am­ple and sad­dled Na­tional win­ners, the com­mon thread is their love of horses as Bry­ony Frost – the rid­ing find of the sea­son – bids to be­come the first fe­male jockey to win the £1m race when she part­ners Mi­lans­bar.

This spirit em­bod­ies Pit­man. She used to call horses her “medicine”. When she first took out a li­cence, the only horses she could af­ford were in­jury-hit castoffs whom no-one else wanted to train.

She was also try­ing to make ends meet, and bring up a young fam­ily, af­ter di­vorc­ing from her first hus­band Richard, who was the un­lucky loser in the 1973 Na­tional when Red Rum col­lared his heroic mount Crisp in the dy­ing strides.

Yet she says she al­ways en­joyed break­ing in horses her­self, and get­ting to know their idio­syn­cra­sies, and so it proved when she im­me­di­ately fell in love with a young chest­nut geld­ing at the yard of trainer Charles Rat­cliffe.

“He im­pressed me with a body which was big and strong, but not too heavy; and legs that were clean and stocky, with plenty of bone,” she said. “There was a fur­ther el­e­ment. It was his eye: a kind eye, full of courage and hon­esty.

“I thought he was the nicest horse I had ever seen. If you see a horse who looks as though he ought to be pulling a plough, that is a Grand Na­tional horse.”

This spe­cial horse was Cor­biere who was then named in hon­our of a light­house near owner Alan Bur­rough’s home in the Chan­nel Is­lands.

With great judge­ment, one of Rat­cliffe’s sta­ble lads who had been en­trusted with Cor­biere made this pre­dic­tion: “That horse can al­ready jump a five­bar gate. You’ll win a Na­tional with him if you can keep him sound.”

A suc­cess­ful Bumper cam­paign, stint over hur­dles and novice chase sea­son had con­vinced Pit­man – and con­nec­tions – that this was, in fact, a Na­tional horse in the mak­ing be­fore a fall at Kemp­ton, and then a ten­don in­jury when the horse struck into him­self while work­ing on the gal­lops, put his ca­reer in jeop­ardy.

It was only af­ter a year off the race­course that the chaser was able to re­turn to ac­tion and show his stamina when land­ing the 1982 Welsh Na­tional at Chep­stow un­der young rider Ben de Haan, who had risen through the ranks at Pit­man’s yard.

In early 1983, Cor­biere pre­vailed at Don­caster and then ran a mighty race at the Chel­tenham Fes­ti­val be­fore thoughts turned to Ain­tree.

Asked when she thought she would win the race, Pit­man laughs. “Sev­eral weeks be­fore the race,” she says.

She can say it now – she did not dare be so can­did in the build-up to the 1983 Na­tional. Yet both Pit­man and de Haan both say the race could not have gone bet­ter.

Prom­i­nent through­out, horse and rider took up the lead at the 23rd. “I was get­ting a bit wor­ried – I thought I might have made too much use of him,” said de Haan who, at 23, was the youngest jockey in the race.

“He wasn’t the quick­est horse in the world, but he had a lot of class. I knew there was an­other horse (Grease­paint) clos­ing on the run-in, but I wasn’t wor­ried – Corky picked up in the last cou­ple of strides.”

By now, Pit­man was in bits. She had al­ready told her brother to “shut up” af­ter he grabbed her arm and said: “He’s go­ing to win, Jen.” And that was be­fore the heart-stop­ping run-in when mem­o­ries of Crisp’s de­feat a decade ear­lier came flood­ing back.

“By the time they came to the last, my sis­ter had tears run­ning down her face,” said the vic­to­ri­ous trainer. “The way Grease­paint trav­elled, from the last to the win­ning line, I could just see the Crisp sce­nario hap­pen­ing all over again.

“As Grease­paint started to close, he got to Cor­biere’s girths and he surged away. Ta ra.”

Only when she was re­u­nited with her part­ner David Stait, now Pit­man’s hus­band, did the mag­ni­tude of the achieve­ment hit home. “He said to me: ‘Bloody hell, Mis­sus, you’ve done it’. ‘I think I said: ‘Bloody hell, I have, too’.”

Yet, as Cor­biere be­came a Grand Na­tional leg­end with his sub­se­quent weight-car­ry­ing per­for­mances around Ain­tree, the fo­cus, says Pit­man, was us­ing the horse to pro­mote Ain­tree and en­sure the race­course did not be­come a hous­ing es­tate.

“He was such a char­ac­ter. We would go to all sorts of places. There was al­ways a mas­sive crowd round the horse box and I had to tell peo­ple not to clap,” she said.

“If they started clap­ping, he would poke his head out and jump straight off the box and risk in­jur­ing him­self. “He knew he was so spe­cial.” As for this year’s race, Pit­man claims to be a “jinxy tip­ster”.

How­ever, she does like the chances of Pleas­ant Com­pany, whose owner Mal­colm Den­mark had horses in train­ing with her, and Sandy Thom­son’s Seey­ouat­mid­night, who will be rid­den by North York­shire jockey Brian Hughes.

Her abid­ing wish, how­ever, is that all the horses – and rid­ers – re­turn safe and sound. “There are loads of peo­ple I would like to see win the race and a lot of peo­ple de­serve it,” says Pit­man, who will al­ways be known as the ‘first lady of rac­ing’.

But, 35 years on from her his­toric win, she is cer­tain of this: “You won’t see any­thing ever jump bet­ter than Cor­biere.”

It was his eye: a kind eye, full of courage and hon­esty.

Jenny Pit­man talk­ing about why she fell in love with Cor­biere.

HIS­TORY- MAKER: Jenny Pit­man cel­e­brates with 1983 Grand Na­tional hero Cor­biere, top, and, left, in good spir­its open­ing the vis­i­tor cen­tre at the St Leger Horse Park, Don­caster. Right, York­shire’s Sue Smith be­came the third woman to train the Na­tional...

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