When Jenny Pitman’s Garrison Savannah produced a Cheltenham Gold Cup ‘miracle’

HOW Jenny Pitman nursed the stricken Garrison Savannah back to fitness to win the 1991 Cheltenham Gold Cup with her son Mark in the saddle is one of National Hunt racing’s ‘miracles’.

Jenny Pitman has relived the ordeal behind the 1991 Cheltenham Gold Cup win of Garrison Savannah.

She and her team resorted to acupuncture and other cures after a shoulder injury left the chaser standing still in his box for six weeks before prevailing in the great race’s closest finish in history. Her horses came first – and still do.

Asked in Cheltenham week by one of the triumvirate of owners when she would know if the horse was fit enough, she retorted: “If you see him in the paddock.” But that was the easy bit.

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This, after all, should have been the proudest day in her racing career. It was, as she told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to mark the race’s 30th anniversary, the most draining, dramatic, emotional and poignant. “Oh Christ, you ain’t kiddin,” she begins.

Mark Pitman and Garrison Savannah clear the last in the 1991 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Photo: Cheltenham Racecourse.

Not only was Pitman contending with her horse’s race against time but her dear dad George Harvey, unbeknownst to her, had been talking up Garrison Savannah’s chances to the horse’s excitable owners, and who liked a bet. There was a dreading – and ultimately prophetic – sense that it would be her mother Mary’s last Cheltenham due to a heart condition.

But this melodrama also explains why Pitman, who made sporting history in the 1980s by rising from humble beginnings on a farm to become the first woman to train the Gold Cup and Grand National winners, plays down her own role. “I don’t think it was my input but Gary’s (Garrison Savannah) character, Mark’s determination and reward for my old lady. She was one of those remarkable people. She was very different to me,” she reflects.

“To have bought up seven kids with no electricity, running water, bathroom, washing machine or fridge is some kind of miracle. She watched quiz programmes when they meant something on the telly and knew all the answers. I was very close to my dad and not so close to my mum, but she was a great supporter. She was brilliant with a needle and she would mend the racing colours.”

To many, Pitman’s rise was one of racing’s rags-to-riches stories. It is only part true. There were rags – plenty of them – but few riches as every last penny went on her horses. Yet, while relatives supported her mother in a hospitality marquee at the track, Pitman tried to contend with her horse – his participation was still in the balance – and her son who had a “face like thunder” as he arrived. She now realises ‘he was in the zone’.

Former champion jockey Richard Johnson and Native River carry Jenny Pitman's hopes in this year's Gold Cup.

The next time they spoke was in the packed paddock when she went to leg him up into the saddle and memories of the 1990 Gold Cup, when 100-1 outsider Norton’s Coin beat Toby Tobias for the Pitmans, came flooding back.

“It’s not nice of me to say this but I was harder on Mark than any other jockey,” she admits – and the pain in her still unmistakable voice is discernible. “The reason being I never wanted anyone to feel I was doing him any favours.

“He knew ‘Gary’ inside out, and as we walked across to the horse, he asked ‘What do you want me to do on this horse today mother?’ ‘Ride him the same as Toby (Tobias) last year. This time, don’t get beat’.”

Pitman pauses. Even now she is embarrassed by her tactlessness. “I’m standing there thinking ‘I don’t believe I said that.’ Of all the things I could have said – and I said that. You must be mad’.

Jenny Pitman won two Gold Cups - Burrough Hill Lad and Garrison Savannah - and two Grand Nationals (Corbiere and Royal Athlete) - during a groundbreaking career.

“‘Gary’ had not raced since Haydock. He’d been stood still in his box for six weeks. It had been a roller-coaster – a tumble drier going forward and then suddenly reverse. And I said that...”

Little did she know, however, that her son felt Garrison Savannah physically grow in stature as he cantered on the grass. “Mother, I swear to you, he grew by four inches,” he later told her.

As for the race that ultimately featured five Gold Cup winners, it is the bittersweet aftermath, rather than moment of triumph, that still exercises Pitman, 74, as both a trainer and mother.

Written off, Garrison Savannah – named by one of the owners after the Barbados resort – took up the running at the third last. Clear two out, his closet pursuer was The Fellow and both protagonists were separated by the width of the iconic track approaching the last.

Here Garrison Savannah produced the jump of his life and landed running. “It was wotsit or bust – Mark chucked everything and the horse gave everything he got,” said Pitman. He edged ahead while The Fellow appeared to be sprinting to the line. Even Sir Peter O’Sullevan, calling the race for the BBC, thought the French raider was edging it before correcting himself as both protagonists flashed past the post.

Pitman says she would have collapsed if she hadn’t been squeezed in the stands by the heaving crowd. “I was thinking ‘this will ruin Mark. If it hadn’t been for you, he wouldn’t have been in this situation’.” And then the photo-finish result was announced after an eternity – in her favour – by a short-head.

She admits the aftermath was a blur as she went on auto-pilot, met the Queen Mother for the presentation and then went to look for her mother as onlookers wondered why the Gold Cup-winning trainer was in floods of tears. It was because she knew it was “a swansong for my old lady”.

Yet, amid all this, her son had asked if she still wanted him to ride Run To Form in the County Hurdle, the meeting’s finale, because he still had to lose some weight in the jockeys’ sweat box. “If it had been any other jockey, I would have let them off. As it was Mark, I said ‘Yes I do’.”

Off they go until, in the words of Pitman, horse and rider came down “crash, bang, wallop”. She rushed down the course and sensed the dread etched across the faces of the medics.

“I knew it was bad just looking at them. They were strapping him up like a turkey about to go into an oven. Mark turned his head slightly and my brother Joe, who was with me, led me the other way. I then heard a bellow like a bull with its b******* stuck in a gate as he was lifted into an ambulance,” said Pitman.

She then climbed into the front of the ambulance and they had a police escort, through the departing crowds, to hospital.

All her son had said was that he was in a lot of pain – and anyone involved in racing knows the margin between a Gold Cup win, and a life-changing fall, is a fine one.

Only later were their worst fears allayed. He had fractured a pelvis and, incredibly, was back in the saddle three weeks later to ride Garrison Savannah in the National. Clear over the last, they were denied by Seagram on Aintree’s heartbreaking run-in.

It did not matter. Horse and jockey were in one piece. Four months later, Jenny Pitman’s mother, her heroine, died peacefully in her sleep. Like many, she regrets not telling her mum how much she meant to her – the unspoken in life. But that her mother’s last memory of Cheltenham was her daughter and grandson winning an unlikely Gold Cup is a comfort.

“You can’t train a horse like I did and win the Gold Cup,” adds Jenny Pitman. “It can’t happen, but it did. It was a miracle.”

And Jenny Pitman’s Cheltenham Gold Cup tip is ...

JENNY Pitman hopes 2018 Gold Cup winners Native River and Richard Johnson can roll back the years and regain their crown after a pleasing victory at Sandown.

“‘Dicky’ Johnson is one of racing’s golden nuggets,” she says. “He’s had some bloody shocking falls – he reminds me very much of Richard Dunwoody.

“He rode for us. You saw him get some X-rated falls and ride half an hour later. Dicky, I admire him, I respect him for his family life, his dedication to the job and his horsemanship. If you could have a winner for Gary’s (Garrison Savannah) 30th anniversary, and someone who deserves it, it would be Dicky and that dear horse Native River who looks such a honey.”

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