IN many respects, Jenny Pitman’s legacy is not her historic Gold Cup and Grand National wins 30 years ago with Burrough Hill Lad and Corbiere. It is the fact that the pioneer made it easier for women, like Yorkshire’s Rebecca Menzies, to be accepted and respected as racehorse trainers.
At 24, Menzies is thought to be Britain’s second youngest trainer. But the long hours, often for little reward, hold few fears for Ferdy Murphy’s former assistant who will attempt to land the sixth – and most important – victory of her fledging career when saddling French import Chavoy in today’s Betfred Eider at Newcastle.
Her ambition is reflected by the fact that this prestigious four mile-plus marathon will be the horse’s first run over fences in this country, though the seven-year-old – co-owned by stable sponsor Masoud Khadem as well as Ian and Barbara Shaw – won at Ayr over hurdles last month before finishing down the field at Haydock.
It helps that Menzies, who grew up near Kirby Lonsdale, knew the horse from her days with the aforementioned Murphy before the West Witton trainer’s relocation to France. “I think he will stay the trip, and he should like the ground and he should be fit enough as long as Haydock hasn’t flattened him out,” says the trainer with excitement in her voice.
“He had a couple of falls in France and the horses there are used to going quite low at the fences, but he used to jump over a lot of poles at Ferdy’s to build up his confidence and his hurdling has been good. I’m just lucky to have a horse of his calibre.”
Menzies, whose partner and assistant is Chavoy’s jockey Tony Kelly, is an unlikely trainer. Her father Simon and mother Debra are both allergic to horses and she received short shrift when she knocked at the door of near neighbour Walter Gott one summer to ask if she could ride his horses – they included at the time Murphy’s Grand National fourth Addington Boy and Irish National hero Granit D’Estruval.
“I asked if I could ride out his horse and he said ‘no’. I asked if I could muck out and he said ‘yes’. I stayed there for about 10 years before I got the chance to move to Ferdy’s where I was racing secretary, then started riding out and then became his assistant.”
It was the faith that Murphy placed in his young assistant that gave Menzies the confidence to become a trainer and lease the Brandsby yard of former Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Peter Beaumont.
It’s a tightly-run operation with Menzies and Kelly ably supported by Carly Dixon in the daily care of 16 horses. Yet the highs, like Pistol Basc becoming the stable’s first winner at Sedgefield in November, are offset by the lows – for example Formulation, a personal favourite of the trainer, is battling a degenerative bone condition that could still claim his life.
And then there’s the responsibility of running a business. In this regard, Menzies is fortunate that the likes of the aforementioned Pitman – and Yorkshire’s Grand National-winning trainer Sue Smith – have shown that women can succeed in a sport which was once male-dominated.
“The horse care side of things is relatively straight-forward,” she says. “You look after the horses the best you can. You feed them the best you can. You give them the best bedding. You keep things very straightforward.
“We have a very good farrier, a very good vet and physio. You just can’t be afraid to ask for advice. People like Sue Smith, she’s someone to look up to and will give advice. That helps. Also trainers like Tim Walford and jockey Brian Hughes. He’s riding against us in the Eider, but spent 90 minutes riding out the other morning on the gallops at Malton and didn’t take a penny. That’s racing for you. I’ve just two staff and myself, and I don’t take a wage. I’m lucky that all my 16 horses have owners. The key is to stay relatively small, while gradually building up the quality. I’ve had to set it up carefully. I don’t have anything to fall back on. The thought of a lot more horses would scare me.
“If you ask me who my role model is, it is Middleham trainer Phil Kirby. When I started at Ferdy’s, he had 10 horses and did them all himself. He grafted. He rode out, drove to the races, saddled up and did everything. When I was moving to my new yard, you’d pass him on the road at stupid o’clock. He never stops, but he’s having success. To me, there’s nothing to beat getting up every morning, opening the door and doing what I’ve wanted to do for my whole life.”
Jenny Pitman would concur.