Olympic Cyclist Switches Saddle to Steeplechasing, Sets Sights on Cheltenham

One year ago, two-time gold medalist Victoria Pendleton had never sat on a horse. Today, she’s heading for one of the biggest steeplechase meets of the jump race season.

Steeplechasers tackle a hedge. Wikimedia Commons/Paul/CC

Steeplechasers tackle a hedge. Wikimedia Commons/Paul/CC

We love underdog horse stories — the hardworking young person invests weeks or months into learning to ride before heading against all odds to the biggest competition on the calendar, whether it’s a highly-touted match race (The Black Stallion) or the Grand National (National Velvet). We love these fictional stories of rags-to-riches riders and their unlikely equine partners, as much as we also shake our heads and laugh about the illogical yet meteoric rise from humble beginnings to the highest ranks in the sport in a matter of just a few pages or minutes of film.

Which is why the Victoria Pendleton saga is simultaneously inspiring and baffling to equestrians and racing fans all over the world: how is this former two-time Olympic gold medalist (in cycling, mind you, not equestrian sport) actually heading for the Cheltenham jump race meet less than a year after throwing a leg over a horse for the first time in her life?

In Pendleton’s defense, this does not appear to be just a publicity stunt for a woman seeking her place in the world after retiring from professional cycling: Pendleton has gone on record describing her newfound love for horses and the thrill of steeplechase, eloquently describing the same sort of passion shared by equestrians all over the world.

Right now I probably feel more content and more liberated than I’ve ever been. It’s like, what have I been doing the last 20 years? Just being around horses, tacking them up, brushing them and racing them makes me giddy with excitement. It feels like a drug. I’m addicted to horses now.

Passion aside, however, Pendleton had never ridden a horse before March of 2015. It’s been an intense period of training, under the tutelage of Great Britain’s eventing team performance manager Yogi Breisner with help from owners Alan and Lawney Hill and trainer Paul Nicholls. In that time, Pendleton has run in quit a few races including flat contests and point-to-points, finally earning her first win in early February aboard her Cheltenham mount Pacha du Polder.

But she’s also had some notable defeats, including a fall at an early fence in her very first race on a professional track at Fakenham just a few weeks ago, followed shortly by a second fall after losing her stirrups just two weeks later. As a high-profile amateur, Pendleton immediately came under criticism for being simply too green, unprepared, inexperienced: in short, not at all ready to handle the pressures of a twenty-or-more-horse field in next week’s Foxhunter Chase.

Here’s Pendleton’s own “jockey cam” view of her first fall:

Former champion jumps jockey John Francome had this to say after Pendleton’s fall at Fakenham:

She wants saving from herself. I’ve never met her, she seems a lovely girl but she can’t ride and she’s an accident waiting to happen. She could have fallen off at any fence. It’s not just about Cheltenham, she could come off on a Sunday afternoon at a point to point. She wants stopping before she hurts herself.

Aidan Coleman, fellow jumps jockey, countered, prior to Pendleton’s win:

I’m glad I didn’t have that much pressure on my first ride. It’s a very difficult job and we’ve all started off in a lowly little conditional jockeys hurdle or a hunter chase somewhere that nobody cared less about what we did. She’s starting in the public eye and I think that’s very difficult. I think people need to give her a bit of slack. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a little bit worrying. At the same time, you look how far she’s come. If she goes to Wincanton, that’ll answer the questions about whether she is ready or not. If she goes and gets round, brilliant. I fell off my fair share!

Reactions from professional horsemen and race fans alike are similarly mixed. The most worrying factor of all, of course, is safety: what Pendleton chooses to do with her own health and safety is one thing, but the health and safety of her mount as well as the other horses and riders in the field are of equal importance and equally at risk. Pendleton’s star power may be bringing the spotlight to next week’s Cheltenham Festival, but if the worst should happen and human or horse be injured, all of that publicity can easily turn against the race meet and the sport of steeplechase itself.

Regardless, however, we cannot help but admire Victoria Pendleton and her intense dedication, drive and courage in doing what we previously believed was impossible. We’ll be following her story through next week’s Cheltenham Festival, so keep an eye on Horse Nation for updates!

Go riding!

[Victoria Pendleton: ‘You don’t get on a horse and jump a fence for a publicity stunt’]

[Victoria Pendleton falls on racecourse jumps debut at Fakenham]

[Victoria Pendleton ‘an accident waiting to happen’, says John Francome]

[Victoria Pendleton’s new fall puts her Cheltenham decision into balance]

[Victoria Pendleton’s Cheltenham ride may turn PR genius into disaster]

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