Is Victoria Pendleton’s quest to ride at the Cheltenham Festival one of the great sporting stories of our time? Or is she, in the brutal words of former champion jockey John Francome, “an accident waiting to happen”?
John was the best man to ever put a racehorse at a steeplechase fence and is a kind and generous judge of people. Therefore, his views, albeit taken from the TV screen, need the most serious of consideration. Last Sunday that meant the journey to the rural Suffolk delights of Higham where Victoria Pendleton was to ride in the Waveney Harriers Point to Point. Early impressions were not encouraging. To ride at Cheltenham, the point of the Betfair Challenge struck 12 months ago, would clearly be at the outer limit of her current competence.
The previous day she had fallen off her intended Cheltenham mount in her first effort over steeplechase fences. She had also come off her last point-to-point ride a week earlier. The paddock was a green, tweedy and cheery place little changed since painter Alfred Munnings immortalised it almost a century ago. An old “patent safety” called Minella Theatre that never hit the deck in 30 runs over fences was entrusted to give 35-year-old Victoria a confidence boosting if uncompetitive couple of circuits. But “jolly” she did not look.
On the ground Victoria Pendleton seemed small, pale and intent. In the race she looked light, perched-up and cautious. She took Minella Theatre along with the leaders but kept wide on the bends to let rivals up the inside. Down the back straight she got some soaring leaps from the old warrior but faded away long before the finish. It was a completion but it was a million miles from the 20 runner hurly-burly of the Foxhunters Chase at Cheltenham over the exact same test as the Gold Cup 40 minutes earlier.
Afterwards the tension had disappeared to an almost indecent extent. “It’s hard to describe the joy I get from riding Minella Theatre,” she said. “He’s the first horse I ever schooled over fences and he is just wonderful, it feels like flying.” They were lovely words but old lags like Francome could be forgiven for merging niceness into naivety. Where was the obsessive desire that faced down dismissive coaches, bullying rivals and personal heartache so well described in her spell binding autobiography? Was this much vaunted “Switching Saddles” challenge no more than a well-paid publicity turn for its sponsors? There was just one hint amongst the niceness. “I would like,” she said with a very different edge to her voice, “to see someone else have a go.”
It was exactly a year last Tuesday that Victoria Pendleton first sat on a horse, bobbing around on a leading rein while her coach tried to teach her “the rising trot.” But it was no ordinary horse, in an earlier life The Secret Weapon had starred at the Blenheim Horse Trials, and in Yogi Breisner she has had the most renowned equestrian coach in the country. She was soon off the leading rein and into trotting, cantering and jumping too. “Next week will show us if she is ready to do herself justice at Cheltenham,” says Yogi. “But whether she goes there or not, what she has already done is remarkable for someone with so little experience.”
From Yogi’s care she passed on to the family training yard of Alan and Lawney Hill at Aston Rowant. 19 weeks from that first lesson she was in a flat race at Newbury, on August 14th she was a photo finish second in another at Ripon. On November 28th she and Minella Theatre finished fourth in a point to point in Devon. The half dozen rides since have been largely uncompetitive except for a close second on the intended Cheltenham mount Pacha Du Polder off whom she was unseated at Fakenham in the most publicised celebrity dislodgement since Prince Charles went over the neck of his horse Good Prospect at Sandown and Cheltenham 31 years ago. Pacha on Wednesday will be crunch time.
The comparison is an important one, for while Prince Charles was an infinitely more experienced rider than Victoria, he had the wrong horse. Good Prospect was talented but was prone to hitting fences and had a very short neck. Earlier in the season he had sent Gold Cup winner Jim Wilson over the side. At Sandown’s 17th fence and Cheltenham’s 10th the Prince got the same treatment and photographers and doom merchants had the sort of field day they got nine days ago at Fakenham.
But Victoria’s mishap was more collision than incompetence. Pacha Du Polder is a great jumper, was second over the Grand National fences last April and has a splendid neck behind which 5ft5in Victoria will crouch far easier than 5ft11in Prince Charles ever did on Good Prospect. Best of all she has, in Alan and Lawney Hill, the sort of daily mentors you could only dream about. Both of them have ridden in the Cheltenham Foxhunters, Alan won it in 1985 and won the Aintree equivalent in both 1987 and 1992. Their currently injured son Joe rode in it last year. The family have farmed and trained in the lee of Beacon Hill for generations and Alan’s grandfather beat Edward, Prince of Wales in the Hunt Race. They are warm experienced, respected and fun. Victoria adores them.
“She has done incredibly well,” says Alan, as his protégée wings over three fences on Supreme Danehill with whom she completed another clear but unthreatening round at Haverhill yesterday. “She sits in very well to her horse and her background give her a very scientific approach to it all.” Up close in her familiar surroundings you can see the effect of the intense tuition which has even included schooling sessions upsides AP McCoy who when questioned on Monday night gave one of his best deadpan comments; “Francome’s not right about her. Let me tell you, there’s a lot worse.”
Victoria herself is far too media savvy to give hostages to fortune but, relaxed in the crowded farmhouse kitchen and at 9 stone a full 8 kilos lighter than when muscled up for the Olympics, she does not hold back. “I feel as if I have won already,” she says. “I have found a new passion in my life. I love being an athlete, I loved cycling but I never had a choice. If I had not done it, I would not be here now. I can’t express how joyful it feels. But I am not an idiot. I am a logical serious person. You can’t overestimate how difficult it has been to get to this stage. Every single week I have been pushing myself to do things better and tidier. I think we have done as much as we could. I haven’t even made my own mind up about Cheltenham but I have 100% faith in the team around me. With Paul and Yogi and Alan and Lawney there is no way we are going to come up with the wrong decision.”
The blue eyes harden as she puts this challenge in perspective with the Olympic final and you realise that last week’s apparent tension was her “game face” on. “I am someone who is very focussed,” she says. “That focus is my strength, finding that space is not easy but it is well rehearsed. You shut everything off, take the emotion out. The last two falls were unfortunate. I don’t think they were anything I should worry about and I will go out there and enjoy it because it is the most fun I have ever had in my life.
Of course she has a massive task. But Pacha Du Polder is top rated on Wednesday and the road could be clear to Cheltenham. The new convert will not be daunted. Come with her for the ride.