It was another betting company gimmick, or so we thought. No way would a cyclist climb off one saddle and on to another attached to a very different beast. Weren’t we all reporting on Tony McCoy at the time – retiring from National Hunt racing having broken nearly every bone in his body? Yet Victoria Pendleton has confounded the critics by announcing she is to ride in the Foxhunter Chase on Paul Nicholls’s Pacha du Polder at next week’s Cheltenham Festival.
The announcement comes after a whirlwind 12 months in which the double Olympic gold medallist took her feet off the pedal and into stirrup for the first time, culminating in a maiden victory as an amateur jumps jockey at Wincanton only a week ago.
Describing her anguish over the would-she wouldn’t-she debate, Pendleton said: “By no means was this an easy decision to make. In fact I’ve been in complete turmoil over the last few weeks. I appreciate it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly. National Hunt racing is extremely dangerous, there are lots of risks involved, but I feel I’m capable of lining up and being part of that race. [It’s] hugely exciting, it’s a phenomenal crowd there [Cheltenham]. I was watching last year and thinking, ‘Wow, if I get the chance to do this it’ll be something really special’.”
With three cycling Olympic medals to her name, Pendleton unquestionably possesses the winning mentality and know-how to excel at the highest level. But Cheltenham, racing’s Olympics, will present a completely different obstacle than any point-to-point meet the 35-year-old novice may have become comfortable with over the past year.
Like any top sportsperson, though, simply competing won’t be good enough for Pendleton. She said: “It’s the biggest [racing] event I’m going to compete in. In my mind, being able to line up at Cheltenham, I feel that’s like winning a bronze medal at the Olympics. If I get round, on the horse, and complete the course, I feel that’s going to be like a gold medal. For me, getting around would be incredible. It’s a tough race and a big field, but I feel like I would’ve won when I get round.”
Last year’s launch of Betfair’s ‘switching saddles’ campaign was met with large dollops of cynicism. Surely it was just another publicity stunt to bring punters in and raise profiles? Just another Freddie Flintoff boxing match. The criticism came from all angles, suggesting Pendleton’s involvement would make a mockery of the sport. Two falls either side of her Wincanton victory only served to increase the scepticism towards her capabilities of riding on the grandest of turf.
Yet throughout Pendleton has remained assured that her participation is a positive for National Hunt racing, continuing to fend off accusations that she may overshadow such a large-scale event. Indeed trainer Paul Nicholls conceded he had at first been “a little bit dubious about the whole thing”. But he added: “To be fair to her she has improved so much that I think now she’s ready for the challenge.” Yogi Breisner, performance director to British Eventing and a racing guru, reckoned Pendleton’s early experiences on horseback were “like trying to fly a plane”.
But the professional-turned-amateur remains adamant of her good intentions. “Quite often when you watch Cheltenham people start leaving after the Gold Cup, which is an awful shame because the amateurs have worked so hard to get there and have their moment to shine. I hope that by participating in that event I might draw more attention to all the other riders who are going to be there with me on such an incredible day. I very much hope it will add to the event rather than take away.”
Nicholls and Breisner both acknowledged the sheer effort displayed by Pendleton to have reached this far in little more than 12 months. “As a person to work with you couldn’t have anyone more dedicated,” said Breisner. “She’s basically crammed three years into one year.” Nicholls confirmed: “From the start the enthusiasm and courage of Victoria has come to the fore and the improvement from month to month has been incredible.”
And as she takes to the starting tape next week, Pendleton will know that whatever the outcome, she has earned the right to switch saddles. “By no means has it been a walk in the park at any stage,” she said. “The strength required to ride a racehorse when you have to hold it back from going full gas is very physically demanding. There have been weeks where I thought my body couldn’t take it and I’ve really had to dig very deep. But by no means did I ever want to give up.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This article was written by Dan Kelly.