In the world of horse racing, few figures have made such a mark as the legendary trainer, Jenny Pitman. Although primarily celebrated for being the first woman to train a Grand National winner, throughout her career Pitman demonstrated unwavering dedication, immense talent, and groundbreaking achievements in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
With several notable horses under her care and numerous prestigious races won, she left a genuine legacy upon her retirement that has inspired countless individuals, men and women, both within and beyond the world of horse racing. For those of you who know very little about this fantastic woman though, do not worry. By the end of this article you will have a great understanding about why she holds such high status within the horse racing community.
Early Life & Entry into Horse Racing
Jenny Pitman, or rather Jennifer Susan Harvey to give her full birth name, was born in Hoby, Leicestershire on 11th June, 1946. Part of a sizeable family, she was the fourth of seven children who grew up on a farm run by her father George. The farm was far from a state-of-the-art one at the time, having no electricity, gas nor mains water. It did, however, give Pitman her first exposure with horses as they were used as labour on the fields. She quickly got some real hands-on experience too and at a very young age she learned the basics of pony riding.
Clearly keen on being on top of a horse, Pitman took up show jumping at the first opportunity. She suffered a horrible accident however, in 1957, when a showjumping pole fell on her head during a gymkhana event. As serious the injury was though, it did little to impact her fondness of horses. Upon finishing secondary school, she told her dad that she would join the circus if she was not able to spend her time with horses. A novel threat but one which seemingly worked. The circus world did not receive a new act, as, two weeks before her 15th birthday, Pitman secured a stable girl position at the nearby Brooksby Grange, earning a weekly salary of £3 4s 5d – three pounds, four shillings and five pence in old money!
Two years later and it was time for a maturing Jenny to spread her wings and move away from Leicestershire for the first time. Seeking a new opportunity, she secured a position at a stable in Bishop’s Cleeve, Gloucestershire, where she stayed for two years.
While at Bishop’s Cleeve, a young Pitman had an unpleasant encounter while taking one of her horses back to the stables. From around a bend on the road, a cyclist came zooming past on the wrong side, spooking the horse. This cyclist turned out to be future husband, Richard Pitman, and although Jenny was not keen on his actions, the pair did smooth things over. Indeed, the two forged quite a bond as when Richard moved to Fred Winter’s stables in Lambourn, Berkshire, he persuaded Jenny to get a job at the nearby Church Farm Stables.
It was 1964 at this point so Jenny was still a teenager but life changed quickly for the young stable girl. By 1967, she was a married woman, after tying the knot with Richard, and the pair were also landowners. Richard was earning enough money as a jockey at the time to enable them to buy a six-acre plot of land complete with stables and an indoor school, in Hinton Parva, Wiltshire. With this, the couple planned to provide a service for other trainers to rehabilitate their injured horses. They themselves thought lived in an unheated caravan until Richard’s prize money for finishing runner-up in the 1969 Grand National allowed them to build a bungalow on the premises.
Skip forward to 1973 and Pitman had her first involvement as a trainer in a point-to-point race. Two years later she acquired a horse training licence in her name and secured her first winner soon after. Having gotten a taste of success in this male-dominated field, Pitman wanted more and so in 1967 she and Richard bought and refurbished the Weathercock House training yard, based in Lambourn. Although their marriage broke down the following year, Jenny bought out Richard’s share and expanded the operation, increasing it from 19 to 80 boxes.
A very busy trainer by this point, with some a high degree of business and industry acumen, Pitman was able to get the best out of some talented horses. Although many excelled under her caring and passionate watch, the following horses stand out above the rest:
Corbiere – History at the National for Pitman
Arguably the most iconic moment in Jenny Pitman’s career came in 1983 when she became the first woman to train a Grand National winner. Quite the achievement for a race first run in 1839. Corbiere, ridden by Ben de Haan, triumphed in the Aintree showpiece at 13/1 odds, and in doing so etched Pitman’s name into the annals of horse racing history. Corbiere’s win was celebrated not only for its historic significance but also for the exceptional training that Pitman had provided. It is a race well worth watching again too as the Welsh Grand National winner was made to work very hard for the win following a late surge from Greasepaint.
Corbiere, known as Corky, was a distinctive chestnut gelding, whose large white blaze made him easy to spot, even among the mayhem of the Grand National. He was always in the race and came to the front at Valentine’s Brook the second time round. Irish horse Greasepaint challenged very strongly but could not get past Pitman’s steed, who held on to win by three quarters of a length. Corbiere returned to the famous Aintree fences on four more times, placing third in both 1984 and 1985 and also completing the course to finish 12th in 1987.
Burrough Hill Lad
If looking at the number of major successes, Pitman did not have a better horse than Burrough Hill Lad. Many of his 17 career victories came in extremely notable races, including the Hennessy Gold Cup, the King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, all won in 1984. This unbelievable success in 1984 saw him named Timeform Champion Jumper for the 1984/1985 season with a peak rating of 184, the seventh highest ever at the time for a steeplechaser. Arguably among the best chasers of the 20th century, a lot of his success has to be credited to Pitman.
Pitman almost enjoyed another taste of Grand National triumph in 1991 but second favourite Garrison Savannah had to settle for a runner-up finish on the day. Although a big Aintree win never came the way of this bay gelding, he did enjoy a couple of very good victories during the Cheltenham Festival. In 1990 he held off the competition in the Sun Alliance Chase (Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase) and the following year returned to become a fairly unexpected winner of the most prestigious chase of them all, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The 1993 Grand National is the only edition of the race marked as void. This occurred after 30 of the 39 runners carried on racing despite there being a false start (for a second time). Despite efforts to halt the race, most of the field galloped around the course as though the contest had begun as normal.
Reaching the winning post first was Pitman’s Esha Ness, who ran a superb race as a 50/1 outsider. Yes, some horses did not start, but Ness clocked the second-fastest time in Grand National history so it seems a little cruel that the pair (horse and trainer), nor jockey John White, are officially credited with the victory. Nevertheless, the race did help further solidified Pitman’s reputation as a trainer of the highest calibre.
Most trainers would be delighted with securing one Grand National win during their career but Jenny always looked capable of managing more than this, especially after the 1993 contest. Her second official victory in the race came in 1995 courtesy of Royal Athlete, who certainly was not well backed as a 40/1 outsider.
The 12-year-old horse was one of six entries Pitman had in the race, which itself was a record as no trainer had been responsible for so many horses in one National before. None of Pitman’s other entries came close (Garrison Savannah finishing ninth being her next best) but not that she minded one bit!
Pitman’s Approach to Training
One of Pitman’s gifts was her ability to get struggling horses back on track, both literally and figuratively. Speaking to The Times in 2011, she said that “getting horses with problems right was always my greatest asset”. Examples of this include a couple of aforementioned horses such as Garrison Savannah, who had a shoulder problem fixed via acupuncture. Similarly, Royal Athlete’s future looked very bleak following a horrific cut on his leg but Pitman nursed him back to full health. Complete rehabilitation was something Pitman always needed before she would consider throwing runners back into competitive action.
Pitman long expressed such levels of compassion so it is unsurprising that post-retirement one of her plans was to set up an exclusive rehabilitation centre for racehorses with physical or psychological problems. Pitman views such horses like troubled teenagers who just need a bit of care to get them on the right path. Despite her compassion and infectious chuckle though, do not think Pitman was a soft-touch or a pushover. To thrive in a male-dominated industry Jenny had to be a firm, no-nonsense character, and she was not someone you wanted to get on the wrong side of, as some racing journalists found out!
For better or worse, the strongly opinionated Pitman was also extremely protective over the horses and people she loved. During one race, having believed Jamie Osborne cut up her son down the home straight at Ayr, she marched into the weighing room and gave Osborne a slap around the face.
Just prior to her retirement in 1999, Pitman received an OBE for her services to horseracing. With her training operation needing a new leader, she passed the responsibility over to son Mark, who secured the runner-up finish for his mum in the 1991 Grand National. On the year of her retirement, Pitman became the first winner of the newly introduced BBC Sports Personality of the Year Helen Rollason Award. The award was created to recognise “outstanding achievement in the face of adversity”.
The adversity that Pitman faced was thyroid cancer and it was a particularly emotional award to win as sports presenter Rollason, who died just months prior, was a good friend of hers. With Jenny’s training days now behind her, she was able to turn her attention to creative writing. She published five fiction books, all part of the Jan Hardy series, which were largely mystery-based tales based around horse racing. The last of these books, The Inheritance, came out in 2005.
Following a quiet decade after this, Pitman took up a role within the Disciplinary Panel and Licensing Committee of the British Horseracing Authority. An official report that reviewed the panel suggested having more former trainers and jockeys involved. Straight-talking Pitman seemed like an excellent addition to be one of the 15 new members that formed a 23-strong panel and she gladly accepted the offer.
In addition to this, Jenny is also available as a guest speaker for corporate events, where she will tell attendees all about her time as a trainer, plus her general love of horses. Pitman turned 77 in June 2023 and as a double Grand National and double Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer, she has to go down as one of the greatest of all time, and certainly the best female National Hunt trainer to date.