Can Victoria Pendleton make her Cheltenham mark?
The Foxhunters’ steeplechase could be considered as one of the dimmer highlights at this week’s Cheltenham Festival race meeting. It certainly was just that until the news broke last week that former World and double Olympic cycling champion, Victoria Pendleton was given the go-ahead to take her chance in the all-amateur riders contest.
After retiring from competitive cycling, Pendleton, 35, focused her attention on a ‘switching saddles’ initiative and has been in intensive training for the past year in the hope of being competent enough for her new role as a jockey. The bookmakers obviously believe that Pendleton has a serious chance in the race ridden on the Gold Cup course by being amongst the favourites in the betting market. In a news story that is likely to make the front and back pages, Pendleton will be hoping for a clear round in her maiden Cheltenham experience.
It is a world away from the days as a track cyclist for Pendleton – who won nine World Championship gold medals in her illustrious cycling career. After over a decade of success that garnered a total of 24 World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth medals in sprint and keirin disciplines, it was a brave move to swap the bike saddle for the seat on a thoroughbred animal, but after a recent victory on her Cheltenham mount – Pacha Du Polder, Pendleton has had her wish granted to participate in the race.
The past year has been a difficult road for the former bike star, as Pendleton has faced some setbacks in her road to Prestbury Park. After several rides on the Flat and some regular mounts on the point-to-point circuit, Pendleton made her first start under Rules when teaming up with Pacha Du Polder at Fakenham just under two weeks ago. However, she was unseated at the seventh fence that day and that fall probed serious debate in recent weeks about whether Pendleton was competent enough to participate in such a demanding event as the Foxhunters’ Chase.
Most cause for concern came from former champion jockey, John Francome, who expressed strong views that the former Olympian should have more experience before taking part. However, the decision was announced last Monday from a panel of experts including the trainer of Pacha Du Polder, Paul Nicholls, equine guru, Yogi Breisner along with fellow trainers, Alan and Lawney Hill who all gave Pendleton the green light to compete in the seasonal highlight for amateur jumps riders.
Pendleton passed her most recent test by winning her maiden race at Wincanton on Pacha Du Polder – and that victory surely did wonders for her own confidence and belief of her coaching team to take on the undulations and pressure-cooker experience of the Cheltenham festival. The 9 year-old bay gelding took the lead from the onset and never saw another rival to saunter home by 29 lengths, and now all roads lead to Cheltenham this Friday afternoon.
It is a very tall order for Pendleton on balance, who will not be able to claim her seven pound allowance for the race – and she will be performing against some of the finest amateur riders, including former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sam Waley-Cohen and female star, Nina Carberry. However, what she can call upon is the experience of sporting pressure at the very highest level with her time as a cyclist, and provided she has the time to measure her fences, and have an unblocked path around the three miles and two furlongs course, then the dream could become reality in this wonderful story.