Cheltenham race like winning gold medal for Victoria Pendleton

Victoria Pendleton announces her intentions to ride Pacha Du Polder at the Cheltenham Festival. Picture: Getty
Victoria Pendleton announces her intentions to ride Pacha Du Polder at the Cheltenham Festival. Picture: Getty
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Victoria Pendleton would rank completing the course at the Cheltenham Festival alongside her golden glory days in the Olympics.

Pendleton, 35, said yesterday it was “hugely exciting” to have been given clearance to ride the Paul Nicholls-trained Pacha Du Polder in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase on Friday week.

Yet despite her monumental cycling achievements, the dual Olympic champion would be just as proud to pass the finishing line in what is widely recognised as the Gold Cup for amateur jockeys.

Pendleton said: “We have always had the extremely ambitious target of riding competitively in the Foxhunter as our goal, 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.”

Pendleton focussed her sights on horse racing as part of a ‘switching saddles’ campaign which was announced last March and has been backed by bookmakers Betfair.

The road to Cheltenham has not been smooth for Pendleton, with several hiccups along the way, but she gained her first win as a jockey on the Andy Stewart-owned Pacha Du Polder at Wincanton last week.

She has been tutored daily by Alan and Lawney Hill, leading figures on the point-to-point racing scene, as well as champion trainer Nicholls and leading equestrian coach Yogi Breisner.

Sir Anthony McCoy has also lent his weight behind the project, though her emergence in the saddle has been criticised in some racing quarters. Retired seven-times former champion jumps jockey John Francome said Pendleton was “an accident waiting to happen” on a racecourse after she was unseated at Fakenham last month.

But Pendleton, speaking at a press conference in London, said: “It is not a decision I have taken lightly – I feel capable of being part of that race. The whole journey has been a remarkable experience.

“I would also like to add that I’m delighted that the Stewart family has kindly made Pacha Du Polder available for 
Cheltenham. It’s great that an owner of Andy’s stature is putting his faith in me to ride one of his horses in such a 
significant race.”

Pendleton admits riding in front of 70,000 racegoers at Cheltenham is a daunting prospect but hopes to draw upon her vast cycling experience of the big occasion.

She said: “If you take out all the other elements of what it will take to ride there, in terms of dealing with pressure that [a sold-out Cheltenham] is one thing I might have down.

“It’s going to be nerve-racking, of course, but I’ve dealt with a lot of pressure and expectation in my time. In fact, I quite enjoy it. I think it brings out the best in what I have to offer as an athlete.”

Nicholls praised the enthusiasm of Pendleton and her “incredible” improvement. The champion trainer said: “From the start, the enthusiasm and encouragement Victoria has shown has been to the fore. The improvement month to month has been absolutely incredible.

“At the beginning I was a little bit dubious about the whole thing, but she has improved so much that I think she is now ready for the challenge.”

Meanwhile, it has been announced that Kelso’s high-profile meeting which was lost to the weather on Saturday has been rearranged for Sunday. The card will stage the same races and entries have reopened. It was set to feature Grand National winner Many Clouds in the tote-sponsored Premier Chase.