The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter has seen Victoria Pendleton in action as well as interviewing her about her horse-racing ambitions. She says we should embrace what the Olympic cycling champion has achieved in such a short space of time. After all, her inspirational story is what makes sport so irresistible
After a turbulent journey, it is judgment day for double Olympic track cycling champion turned jockey Victoria Pendleton.
A fall at Fakenham on her jumps debut was followed by a 29-length win at Wincanton which made the decision whether she should ride at Cheltenham this afternoon a whole lot easier for the panel of eight-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls, his team and BetFair. So Pendleton and Pacha du Polder will line up for the St James’s Place Foxhunters Chase at 4.10pm.
That fall in her first ride on a racecourse was something of a freak accident, as her foot was kicked from the stirrup by Baltic Blue jumping next to her. Yet it gave ammunition to many who believed the nine-time world cycling champion was not ready to switch saddles and ride at the National Hunt Festival. None was more cutting than former champion jockey turned revered commentator John Francombe, who declared Pendleton was “a lovely girl” but “an accident waiting to happen” who needed “saving from herself”.
Meanwhile, others were lining up on the opposite side of the fence. They believe Pendleton, who demonstrated such grit, emotion and determination in the velodromes of the world, is a born winner. And is there a backing with more gravitas than that from Sir Tony McCoy? The champion jump jockey, who rode an unprecedented 4,358 winners, spent some time coaching Pendleton and said he had seen jockeys far less competent than her racing and she should be given her chance.
One thing is clear when speaking to Pendleton: this is no publicity stunt. You firmly believe she would race her heart out over the 22 fences, spread around three miles, two-and- a-half furlongs of the Cotswolds, whether a 70,000-strong crowd and television cameras were there or not. She is a ferociously competitive athlete to the very core, unable to let go of that constant and insatiable drive to challenge herself.
Like the eponymous hero of J.M. Barrie’s play and novel, she is refusing to grow up. But most importantly, she is overwhelmingly happy. So much so, it moves her to tears. “I see myself as Peter Pan,” the 35-year-old said. “I see myself as a child in so many ways. People say, ‘She’s too old, she’s already done it, she should be happy with what she’s got’. But I say, ‘Why not?’ I feel fit and healthy and capable enough to do it. It’s pretty awesome to have the opportunity, so why the hell not? People might have something to say, but ultimately I just want to make the most of every chance I have.
“I achieved more than I imagined in cycling, so you have to ask why. But I don’t think it’s a need to compete. For me it’s very much the fact I used to have something very solid to get out of bed for. When I retired I underestimated how much I missed having something to get out of bed for, something to go and do. Now I’ve never been happier. I feel blessed. It makes me so happy, being around horses.”
Some critics have bemoaned the media merry-go-round that will inevitably accompany Pendleton today, may well overshadow the big stars of horse racing, who should be shining brightest at the blue riband event in the jumps calendar. The amateur Foxhunters Chase comes hot on the tail of the Gold Cup, the meet’s signature event. Many fear her appearance at Prestbury Park will cause a greater ripple than the Gold Cup winner itself.
Bookies are also preparing for a record day and hoping she fails in her mission: many have backed her at around 16-1 despite her record only showing the one win. But Cheltenham Festival officials rebuke these grumblings. Jockey Club chief executive Simon Bazalgette believes you cannot have too much of a good thing, and wants the story to run and run. “The more different ways we have to engage people with the sport the better,” he said. “The story of an Olympic gold medallist wanting to achieve something in horse racing is fantastic.” His thoughts are echoed by Cheltenham managing director Ian Renton who says: “The new audience her participation has created is absolutely fantastic.”
And I am inclined to agree with those in power at one of the most famous racecourses in the world. An Olympic cyclist turned Cheltenham Festival jockey? Come on, it’s a brilliant story. She has been on a horse for less than a year and is now racing at the greatest showcase of jumps racing in the world.
It has added extra appeal to a sport that has long been dominated by male jockeys. As remarkable as their achievements are – and they cannot and should not be diminished – this is an amazing and inspiring story of ambition, drive and passion which deserves its time in the media spotlight. We should embrace what Pendleton has done. It’s refreshing. It’s a fascinating story. It’s the stuff that makes sport irresistible to watch and inspiring to take part in.
Of course, horse racing is dangerous. Just ask Tony McCoy: he has broken fingers, his collarbone, his nose, his ribs, his leg, his arm, both shoulder blades, his wrist, his ankle and his cheekbones, and suffered numerous concussions. But should that dispel every novice from striving for greatness?
You have to ask: if she were a male Olympian attempting the same feat, would pockets of the press and racing have been as unwelcoming?
Is it because she is a woman, that she is deemed not to be competent or strong enough to compete on the grandest stage of all?
In spite of the furore which follows her, she has proven herself worthy of her place at Cheltenham. And, whatever else, she will race today with an unbridled passion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.