Victoria Pendleton can’t wait for Cheltenham Festival date

Victoria Pendleton would rank completing the course at the Cheltenham Festival alongside her golden glory days in the Olympics.
Victoria Pendleton can’t wait for Cheltenham Festival date

Pendleton, 35, said 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 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 focused 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.

AP 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 yesterday, 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 and I have a lot of lasting memories from the last 12 months.

“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.

“It’s one part of it the challenge that I haven’t struggled with too much.

“I’ve enjoyed every second of the journey, and that’s the truth.

“I feel like I’ve already won, getting this far.”

Pendleton thanked the support she has had from the racing industry and added she hoped riding in the Foxhunter would help shine the focus on amateur riders at the meeting.

She said: “The industry has been very welcoming on the whole and very supportive, it’s been a very difficult challenge but I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it and found another passion to pursue in my life.

“Quite often when you watch Cheltenham people start leaving after the Gold Cup, which is an awful shame as the amateurs have worked so hard to have their moment to shine, so by doing the event I hope to draw more attention to the other riders that are going to be there with me.

“I very much hope it would add to the event, rather than take away from it.”

Nicholls praised the enthusiasm of Pendleton and pointed to what he described as her “absolutely incredible” improvement.

The champion trainer said: “From the start, the enthusiasm Victoria has shown has been to the fore.

“The improvement from month to month has been absolutely incredible. We’ve put her in the deep end a bit with Pacha Du Polder.

“The last couple of months she has been down schooling him with the likes of Sam (Twiston-Davies), Nick (Scholfield) and the other lads and she has coped with it well.

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

“Pacha Du Polder is the absolute ideal horse. He is a good jumper with lots of ability and travels very well, as we saw at Wincanton last week. Wincanton was a very big day and it went very well.

“The first time Victoria rode him she was beaten a head by Bryony Frost, not many people got to see that race. From that day on I had no doubt about it. She was beaten, but rode how I said and she jumped well.

“Fakenham was just unfortunate, it was one of those little things. It was a learning curve.

“In my view, if all goes well and she manages a clear round and finishes fifth or sixth, that would be a huge achievement.

“Anything above that would be a bonus.”

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