Victoria Pendleton on her Cheltenham mount, Pacha Du Polder

    Is Victoria Pendleton a blessing or a blow to the Cheltenham Festival?

    15 March 2016

    A few weekends ago, I headed off to the Iron Age Badbury Rings in Dorset, where the Savills Countryside Alliance point to point was celebrating its tenth birthday. Fortunately for everyone, the weather held up after a miserably drizzly Saturday – but for some people what might have been more surprising than a dry day in February was the racecard. Why? Well, because on it was one name that we’re more used to seeing at the Olympics: that of a certain Miss V Pendleton. 

    However, although Victoria Pendleton was entered into one of the novice races, she was a non-runner – perhaps due to an unfortunate (and much publicised) fall at Fakenham in her first big race that Friday. It was a shame not to see her ride, but her very presence on the racecard did make me think. Because her decision to make the switch to jump racing following her retirement from professional cycling hasn’t been without controversy.

    Although she has had a lot of support from the racing community – many of them pleased at the publicity she is bringing to the sport, as well as showing that women can be jump jockeys too – not everyone agrees. A number of people think that the attention she’s received is undeserved, arguing that there are many other jockeys who have worked in racing their whole lives, yet never received the publicity or opportunities that she has had in the last year during her ‘Switching Saddles’ campaign, which has been sponsored by Betfair. Some have even claimed that her presence at Cheltenham this week demeans the whole race meeting. It’s certainly true that almost every paper has mentioned her in their racing pages this week, and even the Racing Post has devoted numerous column inches to her exploits.

    Others think that she should simply take her time before making her debut at the Cheltenham Festival, which has always been her aim. After her fall at Fakenham, former champion jump jockey John Francome described her as ‘an accident waiting to happen’, and others agree that she’s not ready to ride at Cheltenham this week. After all, the Cheltenham Festival happens every year, so surely it’s better to wait a year than risk it? 

    At the beginning of March however, she had her first win at Wincanton, which her supporters hoped would silence the naysayers. But then she had another fall at Kingston Blount point to point last weekend – her second fall in fifteen days – and the doubts crept back in. Despite it all, she’s sticking to her guns, and will still be riding in the Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival on Friday. Whether it’s the right decision or not remains to be seen… I suppose all we can do is tune in (or turn up!) and watch. Whatever happens, I can’t imagine that this is the last we will see of Victoria Pendleton on the racetrack.