Switch of saddles not a publicity stunt for Pendleton

Victoria Pendleton
Victoria Pendleton

LONDON • It is still dark at 7.15 on a December morning as Victoria Pendleton opens the boot of her car and drapes a saddle over her left shoulder while her right hand scoops up the boots and racing helmet which define her changed life.

The Briton is full of fizz and warmth as she heads to the stables to start work at Alan and Lawney Hill's racing yard in Oxfordshire, England.

The double Olympic gold-medal winner, and nine-time world champion sprint cyclist, chats happily as she brushes and tacks up a horse in preparation for the first of two work sessions.

Nine months ago, the 35-year-old had never even sat on a horse - apart from when, as she says, "I was put on a pony as a kid at some birthday party when you're all led around".

Earlier this month, she took part in her second steeplechase race on a point-to-point course - having had only four rides on the Flat in the summer.

Her aim is to qualify for the Foxhunters' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

OF OLYMPIC PROPORTIONS

If I get to line up at that race I will be so happy... It will be phenomenal... like winning the Olympics.

VICTORIA PENDLETON , who is aiming to qualify for the Foxhunters' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March

"If I get to line up at that race I will be so happy. If I clear one fence I will be delighted," she says. "If I make it back in one piece I will be thrilled. It will be phenomenal. It will be like winning the Olympics."

She recalls the first time she fell while being taught how to ride by Yogi Breisner, the performance manager of Britain's eventing team who also works with many leading trainers in jump racing.

"Yogi did step in once when he thought I couldn't stop the horse," she says. "And I came off. I was winded but, as I dusted myself down, trying to breathe, Yogi said, 'Right, should we do that again?' He gave me a leg up and I got back on. I was telling myself, 'Okay, pull yourself together Vic, and do this.' And we did do it.

"We came around and I took the jump fine - but my heart was racing. Yogi thought, after that moment, 'Yeah, she might be able to do this…' He said to me, 'One thing I will give you is that you have a lot of courage.'"

Pendleton looks up. "Yogi has used the word 'courageous' a lot and I've never considered myself as having courage. But now that he's given it to me, I want to keep it because courage is a word that defines this challenge.

"As you ride in a steeplechase and you're on the horse, going quite fast, you think, 'That's quite a big fence.' But trust the horse and don't give him any reason to doubt you. And then the jump comes and you take it and you feel like you're flying… and you're like 'wow!'"

She showed great courage as a cyclist, both mentally and physically in the testing world of track sprinting. She was also brave in talking so honestly in the past about her own demons and her personal ordeals within British cycling, with whom she was often at war during the latter part of her otherwise stellar career, but this is different.

She now speaks of her awe of "real" jockeys, from AP McCoy down to the grittiest racing journeymen.

Of course there has been sniping too, with some complaining that she has been given huge advantages over young amateur jockeys also trying to make it to the Foxhunters' next March.

She nods: "I'm sure a lot of people have rolled their eyes and said, 'What a publicity stunt - she'll never do it. That's ridiculous.'

"But you don't get on a racehorse and jump a steeplechase fence for a publicity stunt. It's not like me standing next to a horse, smiling."

Sports betting company Betfair approached Pendleton with the idea that she should "switch saddles " and attempt to make it all the way to Cheltenham within a year of riding a horse for the first time.

It hired Breisner and the Hills to train Pendleton in a bid to raise its own profile and racing in general. She admits: "If Betfair hadn't strategically arranged it, I wouldn't have known who Yogi was or who Lawney and Alan Hill were. I never even thought I'd get into horse racing.

"We used to think we had it tough in cycling but it's nothing compared to racing."

Like so many sporting champions, Pendleton has struggled since retirement in 2012 to find anything that can replicate the intensity that once consumed her.

"I was bored. I'd been busy but it was nothing that really pulled me in," she says. "When I got sent this idea, I was just about to board a flight to New Zealand so I had a good 24 hours to think about it. I thought, 'As crazy as this sounds, I'm going to give it a go.'

"I had missed the discipline most of all. After spending so much of my life in that environment - having a routine and a purpose when getting up in the morning - it was hard to have that taken away.

"So, when the horse racing came along, I said I'd give it a two-week trial. But within a week, I was thinking, 'This is absolutely brilliant.' "

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2015, with the headline 'Switch of saddles not a publicity stunt'. Print Edition | Subscribe