London Evening Standard
Victoria Pendleton’s decision to ride Pacha Du Polder in the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham next Friday has been dismissed as a prize-winning PR stunt.
A year ago the double Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist had never been on a horse, apart from a couple of ponies she rode as a child. Then Betfair, who are not sponsors of Cheltenham, bought the horse, assembled a panel of experts including champion trainer Paul Nicholls, and offered Pendleton a rumoured £200,000.
Betfair has been so successful in publicising the race under the catch phrase Switching Saddles that more has been said about the novice jockey than jump racing’s biggest festival of the year.
When we meet, Pendleton insists that her motivation was not money, nor PR, but a fresh challenge after putting away the bike following the London Olympics four years ago and an appearance in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing the same year.
“Post 2012, I tried winding down for almost two years — we’ve got a lovely veg patch at home [she lives with husband Scott Gardner in Oxfordshire]— but, when you have been part of something so big and successful, and then suddenly you’re not, it’s a lot to deal with. The past fades into history fairly quickly in the sporting world. I didn’t want to sit looking back for the rest of my life at what I used to be because that makes you feel really sad.
“Now I’ve got a reason to get out of bed and go training, come back, eat, sleep and repeat. It makes me happy. I underestimated how much I would both miss routine and being part of a team.”
Even so, she did not accept Betfair’s offer the moment it came calling. “I didn’t make the decision to ride straight away,” she says. “I got the proposal when I was on my way to New Zealand to see my mum [Pauline]. She had broken her ankle so I was out there for a couple of weeks. I said I’d make a decision after I had had a few lessons.”
Those initial rides proved so successful that she was hooked. “After about the third day, I was like this is brilliant, she says. “It’s challenging. It’s the first time in a long time I have been physically and mentally engaged with what I’m doing to a level where I’m thinking: this is the most fun I have had.”
The 35-year-old firmly dismisses critics like retired trainer Henrietta Knight — Best Mate won the Gold Cup three times under her guidance — who claimed that she could be a danger.
“Somebody could get hurt badly but, so far, in the races I have competed in, I haven’t caused an accident. Nobody has spoken to me and said they think that I am dangerous. I am actually quite good at holding my line. The horse I am on jumps very straight which also helps because a lot of horses at lower levels don’t necessarily have the skill and ability to travel in a straight line.”
Pendleton “took into account” safety before agreeing to race. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” she adds.
Just under a month ago, at her first jump race at a professional track — Fakenham — Pendleton fell dramatically, prompting former champion jockey John Francome to say: “She can’t ride, she is an accident waiting to happen.”
Far from being angry, Pendleton says she feels sorry for Francome. “Fakenham was an opportunity for a free-for-all pull down. I feel sorry for people who feel compelled to be so negative. When you are a sports personality, part of your job is to take criticism. You know that, when you have been at the top of what you do, people are always waiting eagerly to watch you fall. This is a sad human trait. We are very critical in this country.”
What comforts her is the attitude of Nicholls who, just before she rode at Wincanton following her Fakenham failure, called her and said: “Go out there and enjoy yourself.”
Nicholls had decided he would judge Pendleton on her Wincanton performance and she won by 29 lengths. “I look quite fragile. I am emotional but I am very robust and tenacious,” she says.
She readily concedes that she will be inferior to other riders in her race — “in terms of horsemanship and jumping skill” — but the champion bike rider in her emerges when she adds: “I definitely feel that I will be on a different plane to the other riders in terms of my ability to cope with pressure.
“They will not have gone through my experience in dealing with a high-pressure situation and delivering in an intense environment.”
Pendleton is expecting a very different crowd at Cheltenham compared to the usual velodrome atmosphere. “I never heard the sound in the velodrome until I crossed the line,” she says. “It was like it wasn’t there. At Cheltenham, you can’t miss the crowd.”
Another big difference to her cycling days is the change to her eating habits. “I’m a lot smaller than I used to be when I was riding a bike,” she says. “I was a lot more muscly and heavier. As soon as I stopped power lifting, it’s gone.”
And, unlike her fellow jockeys, who have to resist food, vegetarian Pendleton cannot stop eating. “As an amateur jockey, you have to carry potentially 12stone. I have to carry two stone plus of lead. I have just been eating everything I can — as much as possible.”
Feeding the horses is another passion — “I spend a fortune on carrots, she says”— and, though she is no horse whisperer, Pendleton believes she can communicate with the animals.
“Every horse is different, some are very naughty and try to bite you,” she says. “Others try to lean on you sometimes aggressively, sometimes affectionately. Some you can rub their heads or scratch down their manes and they will love it. Others, as soon as you’ve touched them, will shake their manes as if saying, ‘oh no’.”
What has she made of Pacha Du Polder? “He’s a gentleman,” she says. “He’s very accurate, even at speed, and he’s smart enough to know how to fix an approach which isn’t quite right. This connection with a beautiful, majestic animal is something quite other worldly.”
The publicity Pendleton has generated has overshadowed the Gold Cup, the race all trainers want to win and which precedes her race.
“If this is the only way women can dominate the headlines leading into Cheltenham, it’s a sorry state of affairs,” she says. “Maybe I am making a statement for women.”
The effect of that statement will depend on how well she finishes.