Victoria Pendleton picked herself up, brushed herself down and insisted the fall at Fakenham races will not derail her dreams of completing the transformation from cyclist to jockey by riding at the Cheltenham Festival next month.
On her racecourse jumps debut, and riding odds-on favourite Pacha du Polder, Pendleton took a tumble after a collision with Baltic Blue at the end of the first lap in the 4.10 Grassroots Fox Hunters’ Chase.
The anticipation had been palpable at the intimate and friendly Norfolk track as the nine-time world cycling champion settled at the back of the six-runner field aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding. But there was an audible groan from the expectant and apprehensive 1,700-strong crowd as the commentator shrieked: “Victoria Pendleton has been unseated.”
And though at first glance it looked as though it was Pendleton’s lack of experience had caused the fall at the seventh fence, the 35-year-old insisted it was a freak accident which couldn’t be avoided as Baltic Blue’s jockey Carey Williamson kicked her foot out of the stirrups as she was taking a jump.
Nursing little more than a bruised ego, Pendleton managed a smile to the large press contingent who had assembled to watch the latest step in her quest to change one saddle for another.
She said after the race: “Obviously I am very annoyed and disappointed, but physically I am fine. I was really looking forward to the race and having another opportunity to ride such a fabulous horse. Pacha du Polder is excellent and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every fence we’ve jumped. I’m very disappointed I didn’t give him a fair shot, especially as he was favourite.
“It’s one of those things. Having watched the video back there was nothing I could do to avoid it. That’s racing. It doesn’t always go to plan. It’s going to happen sooner or later, I’ve had a really good run so far.
“I am disappointed but I appreciate this is what happens. More than anything it’s a bruised ego, it’s disappointing when you come this far, and there are lots of people watching and my mum is here. I really wanted to do a good job, but it doesn’t put me off by any means.
“Learning to ride and getting to know a whole new world than the one I became used to – it’s like being given a second chance in some ways. I’ve enjoyed every second of it. I have gained so much already. Cheltenham would be the icing on the cake, but it’s been a wonderful journey.”
Pendleton cut a small, composed figure in the parade ring before the race. If she was nervous, you couldn’t tell. But all eyes were on her as she mounted her horse and rode out on to the course. “Good luck, Victoria,” someone shouted. Others nodded approvingly at her form and craned to get a better look, while bookmakers noted plenty of people had a flutter on the 8-13 favourite.
Punter Cliff Myers remarked: “What she’s achieved is remarkable. From a year she has gone from someone who has never sat on a horse before to entertaining these lovely people at Fakenham, so good luck to her I say.
“Fingers crossed she’ll get to Cheltenham. It can only be good for the sport. She’s had some negative press that she’s had it all too easy, but far from it. She’s a very determined girl, she won’t buckle under the pressure. I’d imagine there was plenty of pressure riding at a home Olympics. This is probably a walk in the park for her!
“I wish her every success. I would say there are more people here to watch her which is a good thing for the sport. Horse racing doesn’t sell itself very well, so it’s something they should exploit more.”
That ride on Pacha du Polder at Cheltenham is still very much on the cards and the decision will be made in the first week of March.
Pendleton said: “Hopefully I will have another opportunity to sit on him, to ride him and to get as many rides as possible between now and then. Then it’s up to the team of experts whether I’m ready to go forward and go to Cheltenham. I very much hope I am.
“I’m going to ride more horses in point-to-points and I don’t feel in anyway this is a major setback. It’s annoying because we are against the clock in some respects as there aren’t many races left between now and Cheltenham. It would have been nice to get round and have a win.
“But I must be patient. I haven’t even started riding a horse this time last year. Everything so far has been so smooth and progressed so wonderfully, you have to expect a setback. That’s sport for you. Let’s see what happens.”
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 was 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.