What a constipated, health and safety world we live in. I am referring to the pathetic reaction to cyclist Victoria Pendleton hitting the deck the other day on her hunterchase debut at Fakenham and the consequent wail from certain quarters that she should not ride in the Foxhunters Chase at the Cheltenham Festival next month.
The Olympic gold medallist has taken on one hell of a challenge to move from her bike to the saddle of a horse in a steeplechase at the world’s greatest race meeting in one year. An intrepid, brave Corinthian endeavour so often lacking in sport these days. Such a great athlete taking on this quest only enhances racing.
That is not to say that racing is not a dangerous sport. But one cannot help but feel there is an element of chippy machismo emanating from the ex-jockeys briefing against her participation. Their aura is not particularly well served by a woman tackling what was their stage a mere year after she learned to ride.
This attitude is also synonymous with a risk-averse attitude that has pervaded its way into too many sports these days. Test match declarations timed to avoid defeat rather than facilitate an epic victory, eleven men behind the ball football to eek out a draw and 'tight’ rugby to control the ball. Keep it safe at all costs. Boring, boring, boring.
So is Ms. Pendleton a danger to her horse, Pacha Du Polder or any of the other horses? I do not believe so and I have not heard her detractors say so.
Were she attempting to ride an inexperienced conveyance, one would have to agree that the challenge was ill-conceived and a reckless risk to both parties. But Pacha Du Polder will be more than capable of looking after himself. He will not be taking any instruction from the dual gold medallist when it comes to getting over the fences.
Is she a danger to any of the other jockeys? There is no evidence that is the case. In fact she probably has a better sense of staying in the same lane from her cycling than most amateurs.
Is she a danger to herself? Well, she might fall off and break a few bones. But she is just as likely to do that in a point-to-point as she is at Cheltenham, and I have not heard anyone suggest she should not be riding there.
Ruby Walsh might also fall off the favourite for the Gold Cup in the next race. That’s the nature of National Hunt racing.
Is she likely to bring the sport into disrepute? Only if she copies the inevitable flagrant abuse of the whip rules that will happen at some point during the Festival. But she has been too well coached for that to happen. And lets face it, she did not win those Gold medals by getting stuck into her bike.
I won the Foxhunters Chase on Observe in 1987, having got beaten on him twice in the build-up to the Festival and was generally considered to be a very moderate jockey. The Sporting Life said as much when we finished behind Royal Judgement at Sandown. But Fred Winter gave me my shot, and as he said: “That’s the first time I’ve seen anyone get run away with for three and a quarter miles.” He was very nearly shouting 'why the hell did you fall off at the last?’ But luckily the gods were with me that day. It can happen.
Ms. Pendleton is not short of first class advisers. But if I was able to chuck in my pennyworth, I would advise her to go and have a couple of proper days hunting in the next two weeks. Six hours in the saddle, jumping hedges and ditches would radically broaden her experience and improve her horsemanship.
So whatever happens at Wincanton this week, where she is expected to race again, I hope her mentors and supporters have broad enough shoulders to crack on to Cheltenham. It really will not matter in the grand scheme of things whether she falls off at the first fence or wins by half-a-length. Sporting, Corinthian challenges are about so much more than the result.
By Charlie Brooks - Racehorse Trainer and Author
Article originally published in The Telegraph