When Victoria Pendleton left track cycling after the 2012 London Olympics with a gold medal in the kierin and a bitterly disappointing silver in the sprint Dave Brailsford, the British Cycling performance director, had only praise for her.
Brailsford, the champion of the marginal gains philosophy, said:
“If you look for every aspect of a true champion, she possesses them. I’m sure she’ll take that in to the rest of her life.”
Pendleton will need every aspect that made her a ruthless competitor in velodromes around the world when she faces arguably her biggest sporting challenge next Friday by riding in the St James’ Place Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
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Pendleton, 35, could barely complete a rising trot 12 months ago. She has raced in public 16 times for only one success and having undergone a rigorous programme set out by trainers Paul Nicholls and Lawney Hill and leading eventing coach Yogi Breisner, she now believes she is of an adequate standard to compete at the pinnacle of Jumps racing.
“I have a greater appreciation now of what it takes,” Pendleton said. “I am not sure I will be able to execute but I know what to do with regards to the tactical and technical elements of riding a horse in the race.
“I am riding a horse who is a good conveyance, who is very experienced and gives me a better chance of getting around. Riding a young, hot-headed horse would be outside my level of ability right now.”
Pendleton’s undertaking has split opinion, and her enterprise threatens to overshadow the feature race of the meeting, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, that is staged 40 minutes beforehand.
Former National Hunt jockeys have come out to say that she is simply not ready for a such a tough task, with one suggesting she is an ‘accident waiting to happen.’ Pendleton must negotiate just over 5 kms of Cheltenham’s undulating configuration, the 20 fences that stand in the way of her nine-year-old mount, Pacha Du Polder, and the hustle and bustle of what is likely to be 23 amateur rival jockeys.
Breisner, who has trained British eventers to medals at Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, is confident of a positive outcome.
“A jockey is out of the saddle, standing up in the stirrups in a forward position and that makes it easier for the horse to gallop fast as the rider is over the centre of gravity further forward,” he said. “It frees the horses back to gallop in an effective way.
“On a bike it is similar positioning so that came quite naturally to Victoria.
“She is used to being coached and used to analysing and examining her own performances. So when you say something she finds it easy to go away on working on it and correct herself.
“It is a mindset and her natural ability as a sportswoman that has come in to play.
“No stone has been left unturned and we feel we have put the package together that has given her the skill set to put her in to the Foxhunter in the best shape she can.”
In terms of a physical specimen, Pendleton has the edge over every single one of the jockeys set to take part. Her core strength, her proprioception and her anaerobic ability is something that resulted in her wearing a gold medal not only in London, but in Beijing, too. She has proved her mental strength is almost imperishable and speaking to her the boundless enthusiasm she has for the job in hand, and for riding in general, is unquestioned.
But Pendleton’s unquenchable desire to ride at National Hunt racing’s key event, backed in part by heavy sponsorship and a rumoured £200,000 (Dh1.05m) pay packet for her image rights, could backfire markedly if Pacha Du Polder fell, unseated his celebrated rider, or even brought down another jockey.
It is not unknown for death to stalk horses in that picturesque corner of the Cotswolds in the west of England and the memory of JT McNamara, an Irish jockey left paralysed by a horror fall in 2013, are never far away.
Beneath the well-practised smile, Pendleton still wears a brave face.
“Maybe some people have underestimated what my previous experience has brought to me to deal with this situation,” she added.
“I have been pushing myself the whole way. If I get around and complete the course that will be like a gold medal at the Olympics.”
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