RACING AHEAD: Pendleton publicity stunt is backfiring

Victoria Pendleton at Ripon last year.
Victoria Pendleton at Ripon last year.

Racing pundit Tony McCormick from presents his weekly column, this week Tony looks at the latest news and views on Victoria Pendleton.

I have to say, from the outset, I have no problem in Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton pursuing her dream to ride in the Foxhunters at the Cheltenham Festival in March. What bemuses me is the fact that some of our wonderful racing media, have failed to tell the casual racing fan that this is a carefully planned, finely tuned publicity stunt.

Victoria Pendleton at Ripon last year.

Victoria Pendleton at Ripon last year.

Trainers Alan and Lawney Hill, with Paul Nicholls and equine jumping expert Yogi Breisner, along with Pendleton, are all on the Betfair pay-roll.

As far back as last March, Betfair were sounding out a number of possible ‘celebrities’ who would be interested in training to be an amateur jockey, eventually riding at the festival.

Step forward Victoria Pendleton, who for Betfair was the ideal candidate. Discussing the stunt with Racing FM boss Dean Ryan, I said Pendleton wouldn’t make it to Cheltenham, with Dean stating that Betfair would make sure it happened. A wager between us was immediately struck.

As recently as Friday afternoon, Pendleton, riding in her first official race under national hunt rules, on the Paul Nicholls-trained Pacha Du Polder, ended in disaster as she was catapulted out of the saddle at the seventh fence in Fakenham’s Betfair Switching Saddles Hunters Chase.

Victoria Pendleton at Ripon last year.

Victoria Pendleton at Ripon last year.

This followed a couple of Point-To-Point races in which Pendleton was forced to pull-up one of her mounts.

Pendleton had raced on the flat in the summer, finishing a gallant second on debut in the Betfair Amateur Riders Handicap. She even appeared at Beverley in September in the Betfair Supports Amateur Riders Handicap and told the eager plethora of reporters that she loved riding horses and thought Beverley was lovely, though later that night, to Peter Levy’s horror, told Look North: “It’s a lovely course, right in the middle of nowhere.”

In October, despite being sent off the 4/1 favourite, the Olympic champion’s chance had gone with a furlong to go as her mount, Satanic Beat, weakened and was coming home in his own time when Pendleton became unbalanced and fell off.

I was due to write a column about Pendleton in the weeks leading up to Cheltenham, but following her fall on Friday, I perceived a change in the tide in her challenge to ride at the festival.

The hacks outside of the weighing room on Friday were asking questions that Pendleton was visibly ill at ease with.

Following Fridays hiccup, big names have started to question wether this is a good idea after all. Steve Smith-Eccles, who rode more than 900 winners in the 70s and 80s, suggested her participation at the Cheltenham Festival should be deferred stating she was ‘too loose’ in the saddle.

Comments that the Betfair team didn’t want to hear came from jumping legend John Francome, who, as usual, didn’t pull any punches. Seven times champion jockey Francome said: “She wants saving from herself. I have never met her, she seems a lovely girl but she can’t ride and she’s an accident waiting to happen.”

From a personal point of view, what is clear to me, Pendleton has no grasp of placing a horse correctly in a race. In the race at Beverley, she missed the break, then allowed her mount to race to the front of the 16 runners, before tiring to finish 13th.

On Friday her mount was always playing catch-up five lengths behind the rest of the field. Pendleton said on Sunday: “Whatever happens I’ll continue to ride as I really enjoy it, I even started designing my own silks the other day.”

I rest my case.