An Interview with Racing Legend Richard Pitman
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
As a jockey, Richard Pitman won a Champion Hurdle on Lanzarote in 1974, a Hennessy Gold Cup, a Whitbread Gold Cup and two King George’s on Pendil in 1972-3. He finished off his career having ridden 470 winners. Even in retirement from the saddle, he stayed very close to the racing action by becoming a BBC broadcaster in 1975.
Choosing to begin his riding career in small yards, Richard went for four years and sixty rides without a winner. He then realised that race-riding successfully lay in riding for a bigger yard. Fred Winter, who had been Champion Jockey four times, approached a young Richard with a job offer, telling him that he was “honest and that horses jump better for him than most jockeys.” Richard agreed to join him on what was a new venture of training – he was one of three staff members initially employed by Winter in Lambourn.
The horses, in number and talent, increased as Winter’s stature as a trainer blossomed. Richard rode his first ever runner, One Seven Seven, at Ludlow when he was unceremoniously unseated. Richard reflects ruefully on how much he had learnt from that time. He rode his first winner at Fontwell and subsequently the winners kept on accumulating. He shared the stable jockey job with seasoned professional Paul Kelleway – there were enough ‘good’ horses to share and eventually became first jockey. Later on, the then unknown John Francome walked into the yard and they shared the job.
Richard was married to Jenny Pitman and they had two sons, Mark and Paul. He subsequently married Mandy and they had two daughters, Gemma and Tara. In 2012, Richard donated a kidney and was still fit enough to take part in a veteran jockeys’ race at the Grand National meeting that April. Richard and Mandy live in Letcombe Regis, near Wantage, Oxfordshire.
Did you have a horsey childhood?
I was born and bred in Bishop’s Cleeve, near Cheltenham. I wasn’t overly horsey, but my sisters were. They owned a pony called Honeybunch – the best times on her were riding at speed.
I did win the Under Sixteen Best Rider Cup at the Bishops Cleeve Horse Show, but my father Jack Pitman was chairman of the committee, which waters it down a bit.
Please describe your education:
My primary school was in Cheltenham – St. Gregory’s, which was run by nuns. I was shy and tiny so was often bullied, and it is why I preferred to play alongside the girls in skipping, hopscotch and jacks. The nuns stopped this by a ritual of humiliation that involved ribbons and my desk being moved to the front of the class! I was bright enough to pass the Eleven Plus and get into Tewkesbury Grammar School. I had a great time there, despite being a squirt and still shy. I got caned but it taught me lessons about life…about elders and betters.
How did you get into racing?
At grammar school, I took nine O-levels and, during the mocks, my marks were never worse than third in the class. Then, I failed them all. I now
reflect how I was cocky and didn’t read the questions. I also always played truant all three days of the Festival.
My father said, “You decided to be a bum so you can be a bum elsewhere.”
My sister Pam had married an Irish jump jockey and, as I was still small, it was a natural step for me to join a racing yard at the foot of Cleeve Hill in Woodmancote. The horses were trained up the hillside, on three thousand acres of common land. It was frightening in the fog, but I remember, like my forays on pony Honeybunch, it was the speed that I loved.
Everyone obviously knows about Crisp and Red Rum but what is your favourite memory of riding in the Grand National?
I remember every stride of that race, so it has to be that one. Crisp had won a Champion Chase and was fifth in that year’s Gold Cup, but he was carrying twelve stone and had a Racing Post rating of 105. I made the running on him and slowed the pace down; I used his exuberant jumping, went down the inside…everything went super. Two out, I still couldn’t hear another horse and was still on the bridle. However, the petrol was running out as we came onto the racecourse proper. I heard a challenger – the high-blowing – and we jumped the last well – but I couldn’t ‘feel’ our pursuer, just hear him. I didn’t know it was Red Rum at the time.
Approaching the ninety yards of run-in, I pulled my stick through and hit him on his off-side flank. I should never have hit him. The initial desolation of being beaten three-quarters of a length turned to elation. I’d had the best ride ever.
What are your favourite memories of watching the Grand National?
There have been so many with which I’ve been involved since 1976. This year, I was even involved with the virtual Grand National. It means so much and I live for it. It’s the most unpredictable race with so many improbable outcomes. The void race in 1993 and the bomb scare in 1997 both made exceptional live tv. And Aldaniti’s 1981 win was a real-life fairy story.
What is your favourite racecourse?
Cheltenham – I was born nearby, and I love its complexities and atmosphere – it’s fiercely competitive and top class.
What is your favourite meeting?
Anything at Cheltenham or Aintree stand out and I love Haydock Park too.
How did you get into working for the BBC and AT The Races?
In 1973, I was offered the job but turned it down as I had the ride on five of the best horses in the country. I was beaten by a short head in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Pendil; less than three weeks later, it was Crisp and Red Rum and the one that did win at the Festival was subsequently killed at Ascot. By 1975, only two of the five were left, and a younger and more talented John Francome was there. I spoke to Fred Winter whilst standing on the muck heap and retired.
What is the most memorable day working on tv?
I was starting to go bald, so I went to Swindon and got measured up for a wig. I thought it was for the best as I was working full time for tv now. One day at Goodwood, a storm was approaching from the sea. As I composed myself for the camera, the wind was raising the wig from the back. “It’s a hairy old day here,” I started off the broadcast.
Do you enjoy the new ITV coverage?
I love it. Back then, we had to fight for everything – it took ten years for a static camera to be allowed in the Aintree changing rooms. Look what they do now. The presenters bounce well off each other, they are a well-rounded team and the features are great.
How has racing changed over the years?
When I was riding, there were no agents or drivers. There was nothing really stopping us taking Lasix – one pill would shed 7-8 pounds but led to severe cramps. We were mad cavaliers, now jockeys have become professional. They ride better races and don’t just kick on with a rush of blood. The standard now is incredibly high.
The other changes are endless: railing used to be concrete posts; there were no body protectors and chin straps on helmets were just coming in; they now weigh out without a hat whereas back then we had to weigh out with everything, resulting in lots of cheating.
Who do you admire in racing?
Colin Tizzard for starting as a dairy farmer and becoming a top trainer. Dr Richard Newland for buying other trainers’ castoffs and wining good races with them. AP McCoy for being twenty times Champion Jockey – he’s an amazing man with tunnel vision for winning. And John Francome is my hero.
Is social media positive or negative?
We live in a democracy, so everyone has a right to an opinion, but many are lost in anonymity and are horrible. So, there are pluses and minuses, and my advice is don’t let it win.
Who inspired your novels?
I’m annoyed I didn’t start earlier – John Francome, my ex-wife Jenny Pitman and I all had the same ghost writer, but they got two books out to my one. It was exciting but you have to be so focused. I helped out with plots and characters and a betting twist was added – regrettably, none of us ever got Dick Francis’ market.
Is there any book you wish you had written?
I’m happy with what I wrote, which was seven novels and non-fiction too. I wrote Martin Pipe’s biography, but he refused a follow-up, saying, “I told you too much.”
Are you a reader or just a writer?
I’m a huge bookworm but only novels. I get carried away into different worlds. I have a vast library of novels but nowadays, the endings are not always of the greatest importance.
What is your favourite drink?
I have a whisky, hot water and honey every night before bed.
What is your favourite gin?
Rock Gin made by my great friends George and Angie Malde in Cornwall.
What is your favourite meal?
Any fish or five rib of beef.
What is your favourite holiday destination?
I’ve been to Ibiza for forty-two years until this year and we visit Florida to break up the winter. We used to visit Cornwall, but it’s now so busy. the Lake District, Scottish Borders, Derbyshire Dales and the Gower Coast are all beautiful.
What is your favourite music?
Carpenters – Only Yesterday, Cat Stevens – Moon Shadow and Morning Has Broken and Peter Sarstedt – Where do you go to my lovely.