by Jake Exelby

Some of you will remember Jenny Pidgeon as the trainer of top-class horses like Wild Illusion and Orchestral Suite, those with longer memories as the rider of the brilliant Matchplay and Zarajeff. But however you know the doyenne of Astwell Castle Farm, near Brackley in Northamptonshire, nobody can deny that Jenny is one of the biggest characters in the sport.

Jenny has lived on the farm all her life. Astwell Castle itself is in the Domesday Book (although the trainer assures me she isn’t!) and was used to house prisoners of war in the Second World War. Jenny’s parents moved into the castle in the 1950s and the family has been based there ever since.

Her late father Graham is fondly remembered by aficionados of point-to-pointing, first as a trainer himself, then later as the owner of most of the top horses that his daughter rode and trained. So how did Jenny get started? “I wasn’t interested in pointing as a child,” she tells me with a smile. “I used to get dragged along to places like Lowsonford and Crowell but was much more interested in showjumping and eventing. But one day, I was given a racehorse and told to get on with it!”

“In my day, girls weren’t allowed to ride in races until we were 18,” she continues. “Dad let me ride two horses in my first season – Consolidate and Malaria – and I won twice on each of them. I think one of the races was at Garthorpe.” Presumably she showed early signs of the champion jockey she would become? “No, I should think I was completely useless – but the one thing I could do was obey instructions.  Consolidate was a hold-up horse, you couldn’t hit the front with him until after the last. So I did as I was told…”

Moving forward to the 1980s, Jenny was undoubtedly the queen of the the point-to-point arena. She was champion female jockey four times, from 1982 to 1985 (once jointly with Mandy Lingard), mostly riding horses owned and trained by her father, something that is unlikely to happen again with the game becoming increasingly professional. The horses she rode to victory include some of the best-known names in the history of the sport. There was Matchplay – “a two-miler really, but he won loads of points as his class carried him home”, Random Leg – “owned by Dad and Barry Brazier, probably the best horse I ever rode”, French Peacock – “we ran him in Adjacent Hunts Races and he must have won more than 20 races carrying 13 stone, I could barely lift the weightcloth” and her favourite of all, the mighty Zarajeff.

“He was my favourite,” Jenny admits. “Everybody knew him. He was a flashy grey… with a flashy style of running. You’d get to two out, press the button, and he’d go 20 lengths clear. He was so exciting to ride, with such a turn of foot. And he loved Badbury Rings – he was unbeaten there in six seasons. I don’t know how many races we won together, you’d have to look it up.” Don’t worry Jenny, I did – the answer is 33!

When I put it to Jenny that she was a pioneer among female riders, she scoffs. “Pat Tollit, now she was a pioneer. And Sue Aston,she was seriously good.” The best female rider however, coming from one who should know, was Polly Curling. “She had so much ability, but more importantly, the strength to match the male jockeys.”

Just as Jenny had the privilege to ride some top-class horses, the same was true of her training career. I have a particular memory of Wild Illusion carrying Ian McKie (and my first ever £20 bet) to victory at Cheltenham among his 26 successes. Then she trained Orchestral Suite, a winner of nine out of 11 completed starts – “probably my best horse ever, better than Wild Illusion, but fragile” – and the talented half-brothers Sing in Rhythm and Mid Day Miller. “They were owned by Cliff Cox – I think he only had the racehorses to keep his Olympic showjumpers company! They won two divisions of the Maiden Race on the same day at Kingston Blount. Mid Day Miller was as good a horse as I’ve ever sat on.”

As well as her high-profile horses, Jenny has had high-profile owners in her yard. One such was star footballer Stuart Pearce. “I trained Man Of The Match for him and he was lovely man, quite different to his ‘Psycho’ persona. It was a while before I realised who he was – the horse won at Dingley one day and people were asking for his autograph. I didn’t have a clue!”

Over the years, she has gradually downscaled her training operation and now has just the one horse in training, Classic Destiny, a good recent second on his seasonal reappearance. “Des” is two thirds-owned by loyal supporter Peter Riddle. “The other third was owned by Paul Clayton,” Jenny tells me, “but he sadly died last year. So we’d love someone to take it on in his memory.”

We watch the horse canter five times round the all-weather gallop at Astwell Castle Farm under the loyal Katie Henson. “I’ve been riding work for Jenny for at least 20 years,” reminisces Katie. “I used to team-chase Orchestral Suite and ride other good horses like Anurag, Cut a Niche and Dalametre.” “And Joe Smoke,” Jenny chips in. “Do you remember the time he dumped you in the hedge when Carolyn Tanner came to see us?”

No meeting with Jenny would be complete without asking for her views on point-to-pointing, a sport she has loved and graced with her presence for so long. We start with the debate about the increasing professionalism. “I worry, but then don’t we all? It’s sad that yards have got so big at the expense of individuals, but it’s inevitable. I’d hate to see owner-riders made to feel less welcome in points and it would be great to have half a dozen races specifically for them.”

She continues in the same vein. “I’m violently against joint yards. You’re either National Hunt or you’re not. And I don’t like the 60-day rule (where horses can run professionally and in point-to-points in the same season). You’re either a pointer or a ‘rules’ horse”.

As for experienced former high-class animals going pointing, “there should be loads more veterans races for National Hunt horses. But it’s not a new problem.” And her opinion of Novice Riders races? “Unprintable!”

But I’ll let Jenny end on a positive note. “We all moan, but most of us realise how lucky and spoilt we are to be able to do this.” I firmly agree.