The ‘blood, sweat and tears’ that went into winning our Gold Cup

Burrough Hill Lad ridden by John Francombe winning the 1983 Welsh national for Jenny Pitman.
Burrough Hill Lad ridden by John Francombe winning the 1983 Welsh national for Jenny Pitman.
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JENNY Pitman remains as irascible now as she was 30 years ago when she became the first woman in jump racing history to train the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“I’ve not got any softer as I’ve got older,” she says with her characteristic chuckle. “I may have mellowed a bit but my feelings are the same – your horse comes first.”

It was the same in 1984 when she was so busy bandaging Burrough Hill Lad’s fragile legs that she was late for afternoon tea in the Royal Box with the Queen Mother – the privilege always afforded to the winning trainer.

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And it is the same in 2014 as Pitman speaks of her annoyance at how this week’s Gold Cup could be overshadowed by the Irish Turf Club’s protracted inquiry into trainer Philip Fenton whose Last Instalment is a leading contender for the race.

Charged with the possession of anabolic steroids that were found at his stables two years ago, legal proceedings against Fenton are due to proceed next week – even though his horses have been given dispensation to run after they were tested by the British Horseracing Authority in an unprecedented move.

“I watched the horse in the Irish Hennessy on the TV. He was third or fourth at the time, but I just loved the way he moved and galloped across the ground,” she said.

“If people break the rules, they’ve got to be dealt with, but why the delay? It’s not fair to the trainer, the horse, the sport. It’s unforgivable. It’s done the sport no favours whatsoever. It doesn’t give a fair crack of the whip to everyone.

“When you put people in charge who have less knowledge than those people who work in the game, you are just looking for trouble.”

Rant over, Pitman expects this year’s Gold Cup to be fought out between Fenton’s Last Instalment, provided the ground does not dry up, and the Nicky Henderson pair of Bobs Worth, the defending champion, and Triolo D’Alene who won last year’s Topham over Aintree’s National fences before landing Newbury’s Hennessy last December.

“Bobs Worth has never been beaten at Cheltenham, but it is so difficult to win one Gold Cup – never mind two,” she said. “It makes it even more remarkable what Henrietta Knight, and Terry Biddlecombe, achieved with Best Mate and three Gold Cups, I bet you a pound to a penny that he was the easiest horse to train.

“The same with Burrough Hill Lad. His big problem was his confirmation – he was a nightmare to train. I wouldn’t have got him if he hadn’t been plagued with so many problems. His foreleg came straight down from his shoulder joint and straight up from his fetlock joint – it could not have been straighter if you dropped a plumbline down. Confirmation like that puts the legs under more strain.

“He also had a nasty scar in his off-hind leg – I later found out that he’d caught it in some barbed wire. Not surprising as he was in a field surrounded by barbed wire when I first saw him. When you watched him on the gallops at Lambourn, you saw this big horse cruising and wish he’d just do a bit more. And then you looked at the runners behind him, good horses all struggling.”

Because of the physical and emotional energy invested in Burrough Hill Lad who confirmed his pre-eminence when winning the 1983 Welsh National under John Francome, Pitman’s reaction was one of relief – rather than elation – when her horse conquered Cheltenham just 11 months after she had made Grand National history with the never-to-be forgotten Corbiere.

It also explains her slight indifference when she received her trophy from the Queen Mother, jump racing’s greatest ambassador, and was invited for a drink in the Royal Box.

“I said ‘thank you very much Ma’am, but would you mind if I do the horse’s legs first?’ I knew I wouldn’t have a horse to train if they weren’t done. We would wash him off and put the bandages on his legs myself,” she recalled.

“As I said, my horses came first – even before royalty. We went to the horse box, I took off my coat and was scraping the water off Burrough Hill Lad when I saw Edward Gillespie, the Cheltenham boss, stood there open-mouthed. He hadn’t seen anything like it.

“I then realised that I was wearing my lucky cream jumper with a hole in it following an accident with the ironing board. I thought little more of it, I was bandaging the horse’s legs and making sure that they’re spotlessly clean. I put my coat on, I’d hung it up on the stable door, and got to the Royal Box. The first thing the doorman asked was ‘Mrs Pitman, can I take your coat?’. Hang on. I said ‘N-n-no, it’s alright thank you, I can’t stop very long’.

“But the Queen Mother, she understood. Burrough Hill Lad won the King George at Kempton that Christmas and she presented the trophy. She asked me if I’d like a drink, but only once I had seen to the horse’s legs. She had remembered.

“People don’t understand what graft goes on behind the scenes at racing. They see you turn up in your hat and scarf and don’t understand the blood, sweat and tears.

“Garrison Savannah was the same before his Gold Cup in 1991. I couldn’t get a run into him since before Christmas and it was just a miracle that we got him to Cheltenham on that day. It never got any easier, people had no idea of the strain and the pressure we were under.

“When we won, we were too bloody tired to celebrate. We were so tired that we got home, checked the horses, had the staff in and then phoned up Lambourn Chippy and ordered fish and chips for everyone.”