Cheltenham Foxhunters: A former Olympian who had never sat on a horse a year ago came fifth in the St James’s Palace Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham today, Friday, 18th March 2016.
Victoria Pendleton quoshed her doubters with a steady but determined ride around the ‘amateur’s Gold Cup’ – a race that includes the same jumps and course as one of racing’s most famous challenges. Pacing herself at the back of the field but keeping herself in touch and on the rail she gradually inched her way into contention for a solid fifth place.
“The first couple of fences came really quickly and, as you can probably tell by watching, I wasn’t the most tidy,” she said after the race. “Then we settled into a rhythm and I just kind of tried to relax into it. He jumped so beautifully, even with very little space, he really gave me a great opportunity and was very relaxed. I just tried to steady him up and stay on the inner as much as I could.
“I was really trying not to expend too much energy because I knew the trip was going to be the biggest challenge of the day. Now, I’m just kicking myself because if I didn’t have my whip stuck down the breast girth, I may have got fourth! Don’t ask how I did that – novice mistake!
“Nobody knew if this was possible – myself included. The team around me set off with a challenge and we were going to give it our best shot, take it one step at a time and we didn’t know. Today, we could have been sat here and I could have fallen off, fallen out of the side door and we would have been in a very different situation. I’m just glad we made it.”
Lawney Hill, Victoria Pendleton’s mentor, said: “When Alan rang Paul this morning and asked him how he wanted her to ride the horse today, everyone agreed on the plan and we went off to walk the course. We knew Pacha Du Polder was a doubtful stayer so the idea was to ride him sensibly, hunt him around and riding him coming through with a finish.
“Had there been another couple of furlongs, she might have won! It’s a tremendous achievement. I think we won’t realise what an achievement it is until two or three days time until we see just how much Victoria has done for racing. It’s a huge, phenomenal thing.”
Victoria Pendleton added: “I’ve got no ambitions to go on to Aintree – I think that would be a step too far. I’m more likely to sprout wings and fly rather than ride there! I think, with my level of experience, it would take a lot more seasons before I could consider that. We’ll have to take it one step at a time.
“I’ve really enjoyed the point-to-pointing. It’s a really relaxed, lovely environment. I’ve been very welcomed by the organisers and the jockeys – in the tent, getting changed with your feet on a plastic bag in the mud. I’ve really enjoyed that and I definitely want to continue with that and consolidate what I’ve learned – I’ve not really had a chance to do that yet. Hopefully I can become a more competent horse woman and see what’s next. Give me any sport and I’ll give it a try though!
In typically modest style Victoria Pendleton gave credit to her team: “The achievement comes on the back of the fact that Andy Stewart and Paul Nicholls have very kindly given me the chance to ride such a fantastic horse. A better jockey on that horse would have won the race today. He is a very classy, experienced horse. If I hadn’t have had a horse as classy, as canny and as experienced as that, I wouldn’t have finished fifth.
Lawney Hill was quick to step in: “I think you do yourself an injustice there Victoria. Paul thinks that if we had put one of the lads on there, they would have tried to ride more of a race and therefore would have had less of a chance at the end. Don’t do yourself down! The first thing she did when she came back was say sorry!”
When asked how she had felt before the race, Victoria Pendleton replied: “The atmosphere is really strange. As soon as you get the leg up on that horse, you’re totally focusing on your job. Although lots of people are saying good luck, I was just focusing on ‘lower leg forward Vicky’, ‘get lower into the horse’, ‘think about the space’ and I was thinking about the jumps and when to hold on when we got to the uphill and downhill jumps and which they were.
“I was just completely focused on what I was doing and it wasn’t until I got to the home straight that I was aware that there was noise. The reception was almost like I’d won coming back in which was special! I feel very lucky for that – it was lovely! It was really unexpected. I didn’t expect to get that cheer as I came back – it was quite humbling.
“It was an experience I will never forget – it will rank right up there with being in the Olympic Velodrome. How often does someone get to perform in a sporting event like that in front of so many people in such a prestigious Festival? I feel very honoured and a very fortunate human being to be given such wonderful opportunities and I’d like to thank everyone for making it possible because it was ambitious, it was a dream, it was audacious, it was ridiculous! We all gave it our best shot and you know what? I got round on the horse! I feel awesome about it!”
Paul Nicholls who trained Pacha Du Polder was also celebrating: “I’ve had a great day with Victoria, my two (former) assistants [Dan Skelton and Harry Fry] training winners, and Jack having a winner. Forget me, I’ve had a lot of pleasure out of these lads today. It’s been an awesome day.”
He continued: “Victoria gave Pacha Du Polder a beautiful ride in the circumstances, and the crowd… It was so good for everyone today.”
Asked about her plans going forward Victoria Pendleton replied: “I’m just going to enjoy going back to the yard. We’re going to be riding out again in the morning at Lawney’s – first lot – and I will just enjoy riding out and the training aspect of it, working with the horses every day, getting to know them, feeling their form come on.
“This is the same thing I enjoyed about training when I was cycling – the development and the understanding, the feel of it. I just want to learn more about the craft without any pressure or expectation and just soak it all up. I haven’t had the time to grow and learn in this challenge and now perhaps I do.
“I haven’t got any rides in a point-to-point this weekend but it’s my local point a week later so I definitely will be there. I’ll be riding According To Sarah, my lovely chestnut mare, at Kimble (in Buckinghamshire). I’ll know a lot of people so that’ll be nice.
“I wanted to stay on the inside today as Pacha has a tendency to jump a bit left so I was going one in, one out to help this. I also wanted to use that new ground. Watching videos of the Foxhunters in previous years, I noticed that coming round into the straight, everyone gets a bit more room. So I was hoping that all the jockeys were going to spread out and I would have some room to make my move. I was glad the race settled into a rhythm early on in the race as it made it a bit more comfortable and easy to manage.
“I hope Nina Carberry gets loads and loads of coverage because she deserves it. She did it for the girls! I was chatting to her in the changing room – it was the first time I’d met her – and she was really helpful. She was asking me questions about my preparation and warm up and training – stuff like that.
“I’m glad Nina won and I hope she gets lots of coverage for winning the Foxhunters because I was in it. Fingers crossed! I hope it has brought more attention to amateur racing – people may think of it as a bit of a low light but hopefully there will be good coverage for it. I think the Gold Cup is such a prestigious event that little old me couldn’t possibly overshadow it.”
Barry Orr, from Betfair who sponsored Victoria Pendleton’s Cheltenham Festival challenge said: “I think the team of experts around Victoria have been vindicated. We deferred to that team and we’ve been behind her throughout the campaign and throughout the challenge. Lawney and Alan Hill, who have not only been mentors but have become very close friends, Yogi Breisner and Paul Nicholls all said she could do it and made the decision to take up this challenge. I think they’ve been completely vindicated.”