Victoria Pendleton to ride Cheltenham Festival, but what can she achieve?

Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton has confirmed her participation at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

The two-time gold medallist only switched to horse racing last year, a move that prompted sweeping criticism with seven-times Champion jump jockey John Francome describing her as an “accident waiting to happen”.
The Englishwoman was unseated on her first ride over regulation fences at Fakenham last month before winning her first race as a jockey in her “switching saddles” project at Wincanton.

She plans to ride Pacha Du Polder in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase a week on Friday, a race run over the same distance as the Cheltenham Gold Cup less than an hour after the showpiece race.Victoria Pendleton – PA Sport
“We have always had the extremely ambitious target of riding competitively in the Foxhunter as our goal,” said Pendleton at a news conference.

“So to be announcing that I have achieved this goal is a truly amazing feeling.
“This has been no walk in the park, it has been physically demanding. I’ve had to dig deep, but I never wanted to give up.”
“This is hugely exciting. There’ll be a phenomenal crowd at Cheltenham and I am so excited. Getting round would be incredible. If I get round on the horse and complete the course I’ll feel like that’s a gold medal.”

The expert opinion

Sir Anthony McCoy has been supportive of Pendleton. The 20-times champion jump jockey with an astonishing 4,358 winners believes she is able to safely negotiate the distance.
“I don’t think anyone will let her take part if they feel she’s not ready for it,” said McCoy. “I think she was a little bit unlucky at Fakenham to get the fall that she did, she’s had about eight, nine or 10 riding point-to-points and she’s managed to get round. There’s no doubt a little bit more time would do her no harm. I know John Francome said he thought she was a danger to herself, but I’ve seen a lot more people more incompetent than Victoria Pendleton is.”

What can Pendleton achieve at Cheltenham?

The cynics will say staying upright and avoiding a fall, but she must be getting the hang of it to win a race. Or so you would think. Pendleton is apparently picking up £200,000 from betting firm Betfair for this PR exercise, a dream for the company, who have paid for horses, trainers and advisors to get her to this juncture. Pendleton is adamant she is not doing it for the money, projecting a natural affection and enthusiasm for the sport. Yet she only sat on a horse for the first time a year ago. She us 16-1 to win the race, but 33-1 to fall off and injure herself if you believe her fairytale will turn into a nightmare.

It is the only scenario where there would be a negative outcome for the story, and would prompt an inquest into why such an inexperienced amateur was allowed to take part in such a professional event after such a short period of time without doing the hard yards. Yet even time-served jockeys suffer falls now and again.

The storyline is great for Cheltenham and wonderful for Pendleton’s sponsors. Now all she has to do is achieve respectability. The top four is highly unlikely, never mind winning the race, but that is not the point of Pendleton’s participation. She has already piqued public interest simply by reaching Cheltenham. Unlike her success as a cyclist, she would carry off gold by being a gallant loser after such a short time in the saddle.

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