Pendleton riding a risk but breaks new ground

The most intriguing race in the sporting calendar by a country mile got under way 10 minutes after midnight last night.

I don't have the result before committing this to print. It could have ended victoriously for Victoria Pendleton. Or disastrously for her, and possibly for others riding against her.

Pendleton is the former Olympic cycling gold medallist who "switched saddles" by learning to ride race horses at a gallop over fearsome fences from scratch. The Foxhunter Chase was her ultimate target.

There were headlines of a different kind yesterday morning in England. "Moment of Truth" suggested the Daily Mail, over an article that contained the doomsayers' fears for her, and her competitors, in this extremely dangerous race of her life.

"She's an accident waiting to happen," predicted former jumps jockey champion John Francome. "She wants stopping before she hurts herself."


Worse things were being broadcast and written all week.

Many view her quest to earn a reported £200,000 (S$393,000) sum paid for by a betting company, as a dangerous distraction. Three horses were killed during the first day of this Cheltenham "Festival" on Tuesday, another two perished on the second day.

There has been, this week, a polarisation between those who admire the pluck of Pendleton (above) for having a go, those who think it is just too scary, and those who consider the whole escapade a trumped-up advertisement for the betting company.

Riders were hurt, but none, so far, died. It is not so much the metre and height of the fences, but more the tricky ground, the sharp drops, the collision of horses in the crowded fields impeding one another.

Yes, there is glory in this cavalry charge across England's countryside.

This week, an Irishman called Ruby Walsh made a name for himself as probably the greatest Cheltenham horseman of all time by riding his 50th winner, which nobody else has come close to - and going on to win again, and again.

There are purists who deride Ms Pendleton (actually now Mrs Gardner after she married one of her cycling coaches). It isn't that they resent women in the saddle because there were five female riders in yesterday's field of 24 runners and riders.

One of them, Nina Carberry is from a family of famous riders, and yesterday rode the same horse on which she won last year's Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham, and has won some big races among the very best jockeys.

The Irish, you will gather, love the horses. Carberry is the sister-in-law of Ruby Walsh, and in Ireland it is said that the top amateurs (like Derek O'Connor and Jamie Codd who have ridden 1,000 and 750 winners respectively) "cannot afford to turn professional".

They are born to the saddle, and "looked after"most generously by backers and sponsors.

Into their world steps Pendleton, who has the looks of a fashion model and the guts of a double Olympic champion in the extremely tough sport of cycle track racing.

Pendleton knows what it feels like to fall in both saddle events, at fierce racing speed with others colliding with you, or coming down on top of you.

She has one of the best teams in horse racing on her side, and her mount Pacha Du Polder came with the reputation of being one of the best - and one of the most reliable.

Even so, there are no guarantees of getting round in one piece, let alone competing for the magnificent Challenge Cup that is one of the most handsome pieces of silverware in the world.

There has been, this week, a polarisation between those who admire the pluck of Pendleton for having a go, those who think it is just too scary, and those who consider the whole escapade a trumped-up advertisement for the betting company (and one that takes away the publicity of deserving champions).

The doubters are not all sexist.

"If it was my daughter, I would be dead worried," said Henrietta Knight, one of the most accomplished trainers in the business, and the wife of the late Terry Biddlecombe, who was the most dare-devilish cavalier I ever knew personally.

If Henrietta, who had to nurse Terry after many a bone-breaking fall, is that worried, others should be too.

Lizzie Kelley, who became the first female professional jockey to win a grade one steeplechase over fences in the UK, said this: "Most of the other jockeys are incredibly good. Best of luck to her, but they won't be thinking, 'Oh, it's Victoria Pendleton, let her through.' They won't give a monkey's who she is."

Maybe Kelley knows what year this is in the Chinese calendar. Maybe she wouldn't give a monkey's how rough and tumble, how victorious or humiliating, the glamour queen fared.

But that is too unkind. Most folks welcomed the Olympian to their sport, didn't mind the publicity, and wished her a safe ride around the course set up to test the skill and nerve of horse and man.

I didn't misprint that, and I haven't strayed across the line of male chauvinism either. National Hunt racing descends literally from the cavalry, and always was a male pursuit until, quite rightly, the sisters and daughters of equestrian families demanded the right to challenge for the prizes on equal footing.

Pendleton started yesterday's race among the favourites to win it, not just because her horse was capable, but because the bookies were terrified of the public gambling on her for the hell of it. I have no doubts whatsoever that Singaporeans will have put a few dollars on her - a) to win, b) to get round, c) to fall off.

And I bet others were like the female jockey Lizzie Kelley. "I'll be a bit like the Emoji Monkey," Kelley said, peeping through fingers covering her eyes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Pendleton riding a risk but breaks new ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe