Never was it truer that pride comes before a fall. In this case, a great Olympian driven by an unquenchable spirit to take on the hardest challenge available to her in a completely different sport. Victoria Pendleton should ride at the Cheltenham Festival. But not this one.
The fall would come from a great height, at speed, on a track where the best National Hunt horses and jockeys gather for four unforgiving days. Though the Foxhunter Chase is for amateurs, it is no place for novices. And while Pendleton is hardly a stranger to high-speed crashes in her previous sport, a fall from a steeplechaser is a melee of hooves and limbs.
Fear is not the thing. Nor even danger. Nor trepidation on the part of punters who would rather not see a double Olympic gold medallist and nine-time world champion cyclist fired into the mud. The issue, as in all races, two-wheeled and equine, is pace.
Simply, Pendleton, 35, is moving too fast. She is rushing from point-to-points (a sort of non-league of jump racing) to the elite end of amateur riding, where many of her rivals will be accomplished horsemen and women who have seen the full gamut of gymkhanas, pony racing, work riding for racing yards and salutary experiences around gaff tracks.
They will have fallen off at Fakenham, been unseated at Uttoxeter and kicked in the ribs at Kelso. They will have been rollocked by trainers for going too soon and for leaving their run too late. Put it this way. The Telegraph’s racing correspondent, Marcus Armytage, won the Grand National as an amateur on Mr Frisk. To him riding was not a sudden fancy. It was a lifetime’s challenge.
Pendleton’s problem is that she is going straight in at the top. The Foxhunter Chase will sound to the uninitiated like a lark for gadabout country types squeezed into the show; but it requires a level of experience in race riding that Pendleton cannot hope to have. Experience of delivering a horse at a fence, sensing danger and generally managing the unpredictable creature carrying her up and down dale.
The whole problem with her commendable and fascinating switch of sports is that it has mutated into some kind of race against time. Can she be ready for Cheltenham? Can she learn quickly enough from her fall at Fakenham last Friday to justify a berth alongside the best of the trade? Well, how about giving her another year. What, exactly, is the hurry?
She sounds ready to wait, if necessary, but a wave of curiosity is carrying her too fast to a dangerous place. “If it’s not meant to be this year, it’s not meant to be,” she says. Yet she also runs the risk of retreating into a siege position, which would feed her determination but distort her thinking. “I always go by the one in five rule,” she says. “That is, one in five people will never like you but one in five may love you.”
This is the Olympian in her speaking. The gold medallist. The competitor. But “likes” and “loves” have nothing to do with it. Only a troll would want her to fail. The aim, surely, is to accord National Hunt racing the proper respect by acknowledging how hard it is and step back from the racing-against-the-clock element of her development.
Already she is a wonderful advert for jump jockeys. She is showing how much practice and perseverance it takes to convert recreational riding into piloting round Cheltenham. Or even Fakenham, where she was bumped out of the saddle, prompting the most graceful of all National Hunt riders, John Francome, to say: “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.”
Leaving aside the “lovely girl” bit, which bears no relevance, Francome was expressing a common view, not as a dismissal of her potential but an assessment of where she is now. Steve Smith Eccles, another legend and now a riding coach, said she was “too loose in the saddle.”
Switching sports is no lifestyle choice, as anyone who saw Freddie Flintoff try to box will testify. Many years ago the job took me to Birmingham, Alabama, to watch Michael Jordan play for a minor league baseball side as part of his preparation for the major leagues. Straight away the senses registered the incongruities. Jordan, the all-time greatest basketball star, looked all wrong in his new vocation. He had wandered into the wrong movie. Soon he was back at the hoops.
There are exceptions: Sonny Bill Williams in rugby union, rugby league and boxing, Rebecca Romero in rowing, cycling and triathlon. But Pendleton is making a grander leap, from a two-wheeled machine to half a ton of horse with huge obstacles to jump. So she is entitled to see this as a long-term mission, not a publicity exercise or a mad dash with excitable sponsors in tow.
The hope is that one day she will sail round Cheltenham; clear every fence and hear the crowd’s roar rebound off Cleeve Hill on some sunny spring afternoon. To postpone that dream is only to make it more feasible.
Original Article by Paul Hayward and published in the Daily Telegraph - http://www.telegraph.co.uk