Pendleton’s bid should be a cause for rejoicing
3 July 2015
Top National Hunt jockey Aidan Coleman has got behind Victoria Pendleton’s quest to ride at next year’s Cheltenham Festival after the former Olympian made her racecourse debut on Thursday.
Pendleton, a former world champion track cyclist, finished eighth aboard Lawney Hill’s Mighty Mambo in a charity race at Newbury.
The 34-year-old athlete has been training at Hill’s Oxfordshire yard for 18 weeks, and has had the considerable benefit of the input from Yogi Breisner, the Team GB performance manager. Others to have input include Paul Nicholls and even Tony McCoy has stopped by to lend a hand.
Pendleton is booked in to try for her amateur license next month before a grounding in the Point To Point arena is in store in the hope of gaining further experience.
Then there is the ultimate dream of a tilt at the Foxhunter Chase in March, for which she is 25-1 to win with Paddy Power.
“I watched the race and she looked very competent for somebody with such little experience,” Coleman said.
“It was a good first go and everybody has to start somewhere.
“I’ve ridden out at Lawney Hill’s for years and with her husband, Alan, she will be well schooled there. Come the time she will be more than capable, I have no doubt about that.
“The next step is clearly not the Foxhunters. She’ll get a lot of experience riding in Point To Points and build up from there.”
Pendleton dominated her sport for seven years, winning nine world titles including a record six in the individual sprint competition. She won the Sprint at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Keirin in the 2012 London Games. She was beaten by arch-rival Anna Meares in the Sprint in the velodrome.
“Cycling and riding are obviously very different, but as far as work ethic, mindset and a determination to win that has made her a very successful Olympian she has a lot of attributes that give her a good head start,” Coleman added.
“She will put in the hours and be totally dedicated, and if she is not ready in March as a competitive athlete she’ll be the first to say she won’t ride.”
Breisner’s expertise is not in the cauldron of horse racing and there are some who consider his unique skill set at conditioning horses to jump as only one aspect of what Pendelton must learn, and quickly.
The Foxhunter Chase has been won by some exceptional jockeys in the past, with Nina Carberry scoring with On The Fringe this year and Sam Twiston-Davies on Baby Run in 2010.
Twiston-Davies was another jockey who has got behind Pendelton, stating on Twitter on Friday: "Massive respect for her and was impressed watching yesterday."
The other concern for Pendleton is surely the actual hurly burly of what is a roller-coaster of a race. On The Fringe beat 28 rivals in the Foxhunter in March.
Who can forget teenager Jane Mangan’s heart-breaking moment when she was unseated fro Oscar Delta with victory in her grasp in 2013?
John Thomas McNamara is another amateur jockey to have won the Foxhunters’ and the thought of his fall from Galaxy Rock in the 2013 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir, and subsequent paralysis, is a painful and frightening reminder of the risks Pendleton is taking.
Niall Hannity, a former jockey and now agent, believes that Pendleton is taking a calculated risk.
“I rode in a Point To Point when I was 17,” he said. “I had been riding for about five years before that but I certainly wasn’t a natural and it took me a long time to pick it up.
“I don’t think there is a safety concern at all. Amateur riders’ races can be a little hairy, and every jumps race is dangerous and you can’t predict what will happen.
“Due to her high profile she has been surrounded by some top quality people that some jockeys can only dream for so she definitely has that on her side.”
Pendleton made her name in the Corinthian arena of the Olympics, and in some ways she will carry that flame at the Festival if she ever makes the line-up.
She is being sponsored heavily by Betfair. Whether rightly or wrongly, sponsorship is becoming an increasing part of the amateur landscape and according to the Rules Of Racing she has now transgressed the laws of the sport by having the betting company on board.
Rule (D)56 states that, “An Amateur Rider must not solicit, accept or agree to accept any Consideration for riding in a race…..includes any fee, expenses, reward, gift, favour or benefit in kind,” but refers only to owners of a horse and does not cover sponsorships.
As one of Britain's greatest athletes Pendleton should be given the benefit of the doubt until the decision is taken that she is either worthy of a place at Cheltenham or not.
A British sportswoman has successfully changed sports prior to Pendleton, and at elite level, too. Rebecca Romero moved from being a world champion rower to winning the gold in the individual pursuit at the Beijing Olympics. In doing so she became only the second woman at the summer games to win a gold medal in two different sports. In male sport, Jeff Wilson was a dual rugby and cricket international at the end of century.
It is a rare feat to excel in more than one sport, and if Pendleton lines up at the Gloucestershire amphitheatre in March it should be a moment to rejoice, not denigrate.
Geoffrey Riddle's Saturday tip:
2.00 Sandown: Kingsgate Native at 9-1 with BetVictor