THIRTY years after she became the first woman to train a Grand National winner, Jenny Pitman’s legacy will be self-evident in the anxious minutes before one of the premier staying steeplechases of the year.
Four of the leading contenders for Haydock’s Betfred Grand National Trial, including race favourite Teaforthree and dual winner Silver By Nature, are trained by female trainers inspired by Pitman’s landmark triumph in 1983 when her beloved Corbiere conquered Aintree’s formidable fences.
“It’s better than very good – it’s brilliant,” said Pitman, speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post. “When I started out, and, yes, it was a long time ago, there were women who weren’t allowed to train in their own name and used a head lad’s name.
“There were good women trainers before myself, but I’d like to think I gave people confidence that if I can do it, they can do it.
“It wasn’t until I retired in 1999 that I realised how much women appeared, and felt supported, by the path I helped to tread. They were footsteps in the sand, but I kept walking – perhaps my footsteps were a little bigger than others. Some of them, and some quite unexpected trainers, said to me ‘Jen, you can’t retire. Who is going to look after us?’
“The key was having good owners who had enough confidence in me – and whether I’d do the right thing for the horse. It’s the same today, you need patience with the injuries and niggles.
“I’m really chuffed that what I did inspired more women to get on with it. Apart from unloading bales of straw and hay – and that’s what we have men for – there’s nothing physical about the job of trainer that we can’t do.
“That said, I had a good team – men and women, including Bryan Smart who now trains in North Yorkshire. Team work is what it is all about. If you’re going to be successful, a trainer has to be a team leader.
“When Venetia Williams won the Grand National with Mon Mome in 2009, the first woman since my second Aintree win in 1995 with Royal Athlete, people asked ‘would I mind?’
“Of course I bloody didn’t. Every time I see the entries to the National, or any big race, I look to see how many are trained by women and I want them to win.
“I want a woman jockey to win the National and I believe Nina Carberry, whose brother Paul rides the Welsh National winner Monbeg Dude in the Haydock race, offers the best chance.
“I’m not a feminist – I just like my men to do the right things like open the doors. It’s a funny old world, but it’s taken a long time, 30 years, to get women truly recognised in racing – and we’re getting there.
“Look how many women work as clerks of the course or in other roles. It’s brilliant. And, if I played a small part ... let’s just hope all the horses come home safe and I’ll be even happier.”
As well as her two National victories, 66-year-old Pitman – who is now working on a new racing novel featuring her fictional heroine Jan Hardy – was also the first woman to train the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner when the brilliant Burrough Hill Lad prevailed in 1984.
More recently, Henrietta Knight won three successive Gold Cups with the late, great Best Mate, never receiving the credit that she deserved for keeping her horse sound by racing the champion so sparingly, while the aforementioned Williams is enjoying a remarkable resurgence after an unforeseen lull in the wake of Mon Mome’s Aintree heroics.
Her mudlark Rigadin De Beauchene has an outstanding chance today while in-form Nick Scholfield is a very eye-catching jockey booking for the Rebecca Curtis-trained Teaforthree, who was denied Welsh National glory on the line by the staying-on Monbeg Dude, who reopposes today.
Teaforthree, a first Cheltenham Festival winner last year for Curtis, is one of the market leaders for this year’s Aintree National. He’s one of the horses that has helped the trainer attract owners of the calibre of JP McManus to her Pembrokeshire stables.
“It feels amazing to be a Festival-winning trainer,” said Curtis. “It takes a while to sink in and it is quite overwhelming. We were lucky to get one so early in my career and it has really given the yard a boost.”
As well as the outsider Lackamon, who is owned and trained by Bingley’s Sue Smith, Lucinda Russell saddles Silver By Nature, who has not raced for 679 days since being unplaced in the 2011 Grand National.
It will be a poignant day for Russell and her partner Peter Scudamore, the ex-champion jockey. This was the meeting that saw Brindisi Breeze, and his young rider Campbell Gillies, win one of the principle supporting races before following up in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham. Within weeks, both horse and jockey had died in separate tragedies that left their Scottish yard heartbroken.
As for Silver By Nature’s chances, Russell is phlegmatic.
“He has been sidelined with a leg injury,” said Russell. “We’ve done everything we can to put plenty of work into him. Ideally we would have liked to have got a race into him first, but it’s the right track, right ground, right trip.”
Jenny Pitman would approve.