Canterbury trainer Michael Pitman has had his share of trials and tribulations in life but throwing in the towel isn't in his repertoire.
"I've just had 28 days of chemotherapy and radiation and only finished that two weeks ago," says Pitman, who is battling bowel cancer after it was diagnosed in May.
"I've jumped one hurdle and I've got five more to go," says the 63-year-old who has 59 horses in training at the Yaldhurst and Riccarton Park stables in Christchurch.
He will undergo surgery next month following more intense chemotherapy.
"I'm all right. I'm a chance, you know. The cup's always half full with me," he says before he and co-trainer son Matthew Pitman, 30, embark on their campaign to earn their maiden group one crown in Hastings today, which is part of the Bostock New Zealand Spring Racing Carnival.
"I'm a fighter. I'm a scrapper. I've had a lot of things happen to me in my life so, I guess, it just makes you a lot tougher, doesn't it?" he says, really relishing the trip up north for the first leg of the spring carnival trilogy billed as the Daffodil Raceday.
The $200,000 Tarzino Trophy group one weight-for-age 1400m dash will punctuate the nine-race Daffodil Raceday meeting at the Hawke's Bay Racecourse from 12.20pm today and all the proceeds will go to the New Zealand Cancer Society of Hawke's Bay.
Admission is a $5 donation with all the proceeds going to the Hawke's Bay Cancer Society when the gates open at 10.30am. The members' stand will cost $30.
Savvy Coup, who has Chris Johnson in the saddle when they jump out of gate 11 in the field of 16 at 3.50pm, also won the group 3 Little Avondale Lowland Stakes over 2100m here on March 1 this year.
Nominated for the remaining two spring carnival meetings — the Windsor Park Plate (1600m) on September 22 and the Livamol Classic Stakes (2040m) on October — the 4-year-old Bay mare has a remarkable ability to stamp her authority over 1400m to a staying distance of up to 2400m.
Sired out of Savabeel (Australia, 2001) from the dam, Eudora (NZ, 2009), Savvy Coup was crowned the champion 3-year-old at the New Zealand Thoroughbred Awards last Sunday night.
The father-son combination have also got Son Of Maher coming out of barrier 16 with apprentice jockey Sam Weatherley.
"We've got to start somewhere. Both horses have proven themselves at group one level before and it's a case of you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't," he says.
He had a winner in the open 1400m race in Hastings last season but is only competing in his third spring carnival meeting.
They see the race more as a starting point this season than a priority.
"I really think Savvy Coup will be better suited to the [2040m] Livamol race in five weeks because she did win the New Zealand Oaks over 2400."
Matthew brought the horses here, via the ferry, earlier before Pitman arrived late last night.
"I just love what I do. I love training horses. I just love the adrenalin rush of winning races for good people."
To know and understand Pitman's out look on life requires one to fathom his life's footprints.
The senior Pitman vividly recalls losing his son, Johnathon, 28, to suicide, on November 13, 2013, but they soldiered through the middle of cup week.
"My son knew what he was doing because he knew and it wasn't the first time he had tried so I get quite depressed at cup time even when we win a lot of races, which is what we've done in the past few years."
Pitman's resolve was put to test throughout his own blood tests when he was one of the leading trainers at the Wellington Cup in January after another bout of depression.
A visit to the GP gave him the all clear.
"They said, 'Well, we'd better put you in for a colonoscopy'," he says, revealing he had taken Savvy Coup to the Australian Oaks during Easter Day weekend so that had delayed his medical test by almost a month.
"While I was having a colonoscopy they said, 'Sorry Mike, but you've had an extensive growth'."
A witty Pitman says he asked them if he could have a second opinion "but it was too late".
"I have a lot more people who are worse off than me," he says.
He was a PGA golf equipment sales manager at 19 and had lugged the bag for the late Stuart "The Emperor" Jones, of Hastings, who was dubbed the greatest amateur in New Zealand who never turned professional.
"I had a bad accident in 1979 when I was 24 years old after I got hit by a car which left me in hospital for six months."
Pitman lost his right leg and now wears a prosthetic limb.
"When I was 13, I was on a 13 handicap and I used to play off a one," he says. "I used to do a lot of caddying for a fellow called Stuart Jones. I caddied all over New Zealand for Stuart."
His brother, Geoffrey, who went on to become a professional at Cambridge Golf Club, had caddied for Ross Murray.
Before the accident, Pitman had competed in the Leopard Under-23 golf tourney seven times at the Hastings Golf Club in Bridge Pa.
"I never won it. I wasn't good enough," he says.
His options were limited so he soldiered on with racing, something he always had a penchant for alongside golf.
"I probably didn't have much success but all of a sudden we started to have a couple of wins and now I've personally trained 1700 winners which is on the all-time list behind Graeme Rogerson and Dave O'Sullivan."
Pitman has won three New Zealand premierships (group one races) and claiming a Hastings spring carnival one is on his agenda.
While it may sound like he's blowing his own trumpet he's extremely proud of his accomplishments.
"I'm going in with my eyes open already because I think Savvy Coup will be very hard to beat when she steps up to the [2040m] Livamol."
Pitman is sold on the 80-20 rule of life, which he believes applies to everything and encourages those keen to know more to buy the book, The Secret.
"It's a well-known fact that 80 per cent of your business is supplied by 20 per cent of your clientele and you spend 80 per cent of your time with 20 per cent of your friends.
"Anyone in business will tell you that."
An owner, Ray Coupland, gave him the book a long time ago for a life-changing read.
"I'm a lot more positive. You have to be in this game but I'm very positive and so is my family."
He lost his son, Johnathon, five years ago to suicide.
"He was a very gifted sportsman. He had fought in two taekwondo tournaments in Australia and won them both. He also represented New Zealand in judo and went to Japan to train under one of the world's leading judo trainers there."
Johnathon had played rugby league for New Zealand Universities in the World Cup in Brisbane, Australia.
"It's typical of those sort of sports people because they are hard on themselves."
Pitman says he feels the loss of his son every day and reckons it's not something you one ever breaks free from but life is a game he knows one has to play.
"I was told when I had my accident in 1979 that it would change my life because I'd be in a wheelchair before I turned 50," he says, revealing he still has a steel rod in his right thigh and screws on his right ankle restrict his movements.
"I'm 63 now and I haven't looked at a wheelchair for a long time yet so don't anyone worry about that."
Pitman features in a cancer promotion video which he says is from his heart.
"I know of one person already who has seen that promo and immediately booked in with their GP to get a colonoscopy and that's what I was trying to get across to people.
"We're not all tough Kiwi blokes so sometimes you've just got to put your health first, you know," he says.
Cambridge trainer Shelley Hale, another cancer survivor, has two horses, Close Up and Seventh Up, in the Tarzino Trophy line up today.
Hale, a co-breeder and part-owner, had claimed her maiden group one victory on Close up, with Auckland veteran jockey Grant Cooksley, last year.
Jockey Jake Baylis will ride 9-year-old gelding Close Up out of barrier two while Cooksley will be in the saddle of 8-year-old Shinko King gelding Seventh Up from gate 12.
WHERE TO GET HELP
■ Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354.
■ Depression helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757.
■ Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116.
■ Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666.
■ Suicide Crisis helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).
■ Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email email@example.com.
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■ Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged five to 18.