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