She has enjoyed Olympic gold medal-seizing triumphs on two wheels, in front of expectant crowds frantically exhorting her to prevail. But even such moments cannot prepare her for, and almost certainly won’t compare with, the seven minutes next Friday when, poised on half a ton of horseflesh, to the accompaniment of the “Cheltenham roar”, Victoria Pendleton attempts to negotiate the 22 fences and three miles, two-and- a-half furlongs of the race known as the amateur riders’ Gold Cup – and emphatically answer the naysayers.
Only a year after the two-time Olympic gold medal-winning track cyclist first sat on a racehorse, just getting here is achievement enough for a woman whose riding has been the subject of analysis and scrutiny like no other, particularly after one of her much-photographed falls. “An accident waiting to happen,” opined John Francome, the former National Hunt champion jockey.
The scepticism in some quarters could have blunted the self-belief of the 35-year-old. But with Pendleton, there has never been any doubt that she would make it to the Cheltenham start line. “I wanted to prove everyone wrong,” she says. “There was something deep inside. The more they discount my chances the more I want to strive to succeed. That’s all I had. It can go a long way, put to good use.”
Such an attitude, allied to constant positivity, explains why as much as purists among the near-70,000 crowd will prefer to dwell on the Gold Cup – the pinnacle of equine excellence over jumps – the conclusion to Pendleton’s adventure in the following event, the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup, will enrapture the world beyond racing.
Her partner is the eight-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls’ nine-year-old Pacha Du Polder, winner of seven of his 23 races, the last of which came under Pendleton at Wincanton – her first win on the Flat or over jumps. He is a classy enough animal, but his likely opposition will include the hot favourite On The Fringe. Under Nina Carberry, that rival annihilated the opposition in last year’s Foxhunters, and went on to beat the nine-year-old Pacha Du Polder in last year’s Crabbie’s Fox Hunters’ Chase at Aintree. Bookmakers currently offer odds of around 16-1 against a Pendleton victory.
Among the most exhilarated of the watchers will be trainers Lawney and Alan Hill, to whom Pendleton has become almost an adopted daughter in the months in which they have honed her talents at their Woodway Farm stables at Aston Rowant in Oxfordshire. “Incredibly polite, always on time, always looks immaculate. And always smiling,” is Lawney Hill’s assessment of their prodigy. “As a member of our extended family, Victoria has sat through family arguments, she’s sat through tears and sat through celebrations. She’s a kind, generous person, very warm. On Friday, Alan and I will be a little like proud parents – delighted at the progression that Victoria’s made and how hard she’s worked for it. I just hope she has a trouble-free round.”
Yet even Hill concedes she was not entirely convinced by the initiative when Pendleton first visited her stables. “John Maxse [the former BHA and Jockey Club PR man, and part of Pendleton’s support team provided by Betfair, who are backing her ‘Switching Saddles’ initiative], who I know, rang me with, as he said himself, a rather odd request – could he bring Victoria Pendleton and her agent to have a look round the yard. We watched, and afterwards John said that Victoria was going to learn to ride, and that there’s been a challenge made for her to ride at the Cheltenham Festival.”
Hill thought he meant a charity Flat race. “He said, ‘No, it’s in the Foxhunters’. I said, ‘If she’s never ridden before, there’s very little chance of her doing that’. He said, ‘No, that’s what it is’. And I just said, ‘Hmm…’ I genuinely didn’t think at the time it was a realistic goal. But that was a long time ago, and a lot of hard work has gone on in between.” She pauses. “We’re only a few days away, and it’s just amazing. I can’t believe it’s all coming to fruition.”
In truth, only a highly motivated, disciplined, fit individual could have accomplished what Pendleton has. “I don’t think you can regard a double Olympic gold-winning athlete as any normal person,” says Lawney Hill. “You knew you were going to be dealing with a specific type of elite athlete with a huge hunger for success – not someone who would jump at any stunt.”
She adds: “Victoria’s been coached to a very high level [in cycling] and ridden in three different Olympics. So that’s 12 years of hard work and concentration and being finely tuned at the highest level. She’s got tremendous focus, very high levels of concentration, and she’s very good at listening at what you ask for, and then trying to reproduce it.”
Those who have guided her include Yogi Breisner, performance manager of GB’s eventing team, trainer Nicholls, 20-time champion jump jockey AP McCoy and Alan Hill.
Say Lawney Hill: “On a horse, she’s very focused. She won’t laugh and joke so much – because she’s trying to concentrate and learn all the time.” At one point she thought Pendleton was perhaps “too fond of the horses... but I feel her competitive spirit has taken over and caused her to override her fear of harming the horses. She would never be one who would mistreat a horse in any way and, as a novice rider, she has yet to grasp the use of a stick much”
But the Hills’ prime concern is a safe round for Pendleton at about 4.20pm on Friday. “Victoria will put a lot of pressure on herself because she’s very demanding. She’s a perfectionist,” says Lawney Hill. “[But] she will come back absolutely buzzing from this.”
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