Michael Pitman has been through many battles in life, In April he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Reporter Gordon Findlater spoke to the top horse trainer about his latest fight
Prominent Canterbury horse trainer Michael Pitman is determined not to let bowel cancer get in the way of his big ambition in life – to train 2000 winners in New Zealand.
Pitman returned home in April from a trip to the Australian Oaks in Sydney with Savvy Coup.
A colonoscopy upon his return revealed the 63-year-old had a mass cancer growth.
“I’ve told the doctor all I need is five more years . . . to get to 2000 I need five years up my sleeve and if I can get through that, I’ll be a happy man,” said Pitman.
Since then Pitman has undergone 28 days of chemotherapy and radiation treatment which finished two weeks ago. In October he will undergo surgery to remove the cancer growth before more chemotherapy. Pitman isn’t new to the healthcare system. When he was 24, he lost his lower left leg and was told he would be in a wheelchair by the time he was 50. Pitman has also suffered multiple injuries on the job, which includes slicing off fingers on horse floats.
He has battled depression since his son Jonny took his own life in November 2013, and he knows about the severity of cancer after losing both parents to it. Although Pitman has been dealt some rough cards, he says he’s received just as many good ones.
“I’ve had more thrills than the average bloke, though, don’t you worry about that. We’ve trained over 1700 winners now and every single one of them is a thrill. But I’m at both ends of the spectrum.”
He hopes another thrill could arrive near Daffodil Day.
On Saturday Pitman and Savvy Coup will reunite in Hastings for the group one $200,000 1400m Tarzino Trophy. The race day is also run in support of Daffodil Day. Over the last three years, the day has raised $70,000 for the Cancer Society.
Savvy Coup has a chance of claiming another group one win for Pitman and his son Matthew. At the weekend, the mare was named the Champion Three-Year-Old at the New Zealand Thoroughbred Horse of the Year Awards. The Pitman-trained Son Of Maher is also in the field.
In January the father and son combo claimed their first Group One win together with Enzo’s Lad at Trentham.
“I should have been on top of the world after that but I came home and I was depressed as anything. I thought I have to go and see the doctor because something’s not quite right . . . the tell-tale signs were there,” Pitman said.
A blood test following the doctor’s visit revealed nothing. However, the consultation led to the colonoscopy. Pitman says since learning of his cancer, he has started recommending others over the age of 50 do the same.
“I should have listened to my body but I’m a male and males do not listen . . . I should have gone six or probably even 12 months earlier.”
After his previous major health scare, which saw him in the hospital for 26 weeks, he says he is probably living on borrowed time. But he is determined to overcome the new obstacle and has even dramatically changed his diet, including eating fish five times a week.
“My options are to take all the advice, listen to it and obey it, or just ignore it and burn a casket,” said Pitman.
“My specialist said that he’s 99 per cent confident that in 12 months’ time, I’ll be okay. I’ve just got to believe it.”
His journey towards getting healthy again will mean missing one of Savvy Coup’s biggest races to date. Pitman has high hopes for the horse at the 2000m Livamole Classic in Hastings on October 6.
“I won’t be able to get there because my operation is scheduled for two days before that.”
If Savvy Coup can win the race, Pitman says there’s a good chance he will take her to Melbourne to race in the Cox Plate which would set up a showdown with Winx.
If that is to happen, it will be a first for Pitman who trained a total of 67 winners and won more than $2 million in prize-money last season.
A showdown with one of the greatest horses of all time is understandably not something Pitman would want to miss. However, his health will come first.“If I can get to Melbourne, I will. But life will go on without me. Matthew, Diane (Michael’s wife) and the staff are doing a great job . . . we’re trying to make every post a winning post and we’re doing a pretty good job of it,” said Pitman.
“We have to go well at Hastings first.”
•New Zealand has one of the highest rates of per capita of bowel cancer in the world
•Each year about 3000 people are diagnosed with the disease
•It is most common in people over the age of 50
•1300 people die of it each year
•It is estimated that one in 18 New Zealanders will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime
•75 per cent of bowel cancer is curable if it is caught early
•Bowel cancer is the second highest cause of cancer-related death in New Zealand, second to lung cancer