Let’s not turn this Chase into a circus
A PRE- FESTIVAL open day at Cheltenham, originally set for yesterday, was quietly shelved when Victoria Pendleton announced she would be giving a news conference in London.
There were “issues” of availability, so a spokesperson for the course explained, but clearly nothing can compete with news that, following her debut victory at Wincanton last week, the former Olympic cyclist will ride in the Foxhunter Chase after all.
Most in racing, including Cheltenham, have cautiously welcomed the attention that Pendleton’s ‘ Switching Saddles’ campaign has brought, not least bookmaker and exchange player Betfair, who have understandably wrung every ounce of publicity from the decision.
However, there are plenty of racing professionals keeping their fingers crossed not only that she arrives at the finishing line in one piece but that the whole Festival is not turned into the Victoria Pendleton circus.
John Francome and his old sparring partner Steve Smith-Eccles, now a British Racing School riding coach, have said that she is still too inexperienced to be riding at the Festival this year, the former suggesting she is an “accident waiting to happen”.
Others are more broadly supportive if uncomfortable with the concept of the whole project, given it has been suggested that Betfair are paying Pendleton somewhere near £ 200,000 for the campaign.
Leading lady amateur Katie Walsh was asked last month for her thoughts and gave her endorsement to Pendleton’s efforts, insisting she is full of admiration for the way the former cyclist has adapted to a new sport in such a short space of time, given she had her first riding lesson in February 2015.
“She has come on in huge leaps and bounds and if someone had told me last February that Victoria Pendleton was going to ride in the charity race [ a Flat race] I would have said fantastic, great work, that’s huge,” said Walsh. “So to come and ride in the Foxhunter at Cheltenham is a big task.” But the younger sister of leading jump jockey Ruby, daughter of trainer Ted and the winner of two races as an amateur at the Festival, also feels uncomfortable with the circus surrounding Pendleton and her challenge.
“It has been a great attraction for racing but I hope it doesn’t overtake the racing,” she said. “I don’t think Cheltenham needs Victoria Pendleton to make Cheltenham special. I think it is special already.” If Cheltenham were in any doubt about how much interest will gather around Pendleton’s challenge between now and the race, none remains after yesterday.
Within minutes of the press conference in London confirming her intention to run, clerk of the course Simon Claisse was being asked whether they might give thought to moving the Foxhunter in the running order on Friday.
What was unclear was whether that was so the Gold Cup, run 40 minutes earlier, did not overshadow the amateurs’ race or that the amateurs’ race did not take away from the Gold Cup. Either way the answer was an emphatic “no”.
“If Victoria Pendleton wasn’t an Olympic goal medallist and she was Sally Brown from down the road who decided to ride in the Foxhunter and got her licence, we wouldn’t even know. That is the reality,” said Walsh.
“Usually it is trainer, owner or jockey riding in that race and I would walk into the weighing room on a Friday and see faces that I have never seen before.
“The difference [ between them and Pendleton] is that they are usually someone who has probably been point- to- pointing and hunting from a young age, who has probably had a couple of horses, and has probably clocked up years of riding experience.
“It is the race that gives the amateur a real opportunity to ride at Cheltenham but it is a hugely hard race to win. There will be 25 or 26 runners, a lot of prize money at stake and they will be going fast. It’ll be without doubt her biggest test so far.”
Walsh wishes Pendleton well, as she would with any other of the nervous, fresh faces in the weighing room as they prepare to go out next week. “I hope she doesn’t fall and I hope she doesn’t get hurt,” she said.