In my 10 years of writing about horse racing for The Guardian, there has never been a story like that of Victoria Pendleton. By that, I don't just mean the obvious point that no-one as famous has suddenly tried to turn themselves into a jump jockey during that time, although that would certainly be true.
This story stands out for the way it appeals to many more readers than normally take an interest in racing matters, and also for the way it divides opinion among established followers of the sport. Its appeal was predictable from the outset, the controversy much less so, and I am still taken aback at times by the vociferousness with which some people show their antipathy for the subject.
‘Clickbait’ was the one-word dismissal I got from an early commenter on a recent piece I wrote about Pendleton. That appears to be the term you use these days to scoff at a subject in which many others are interested while you are not. Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, whoever you were, but the story has gripped me and many others, judging by the fact that Pendleton articles were the most-read in the sports section of The Guardian website on consecutive days last month, beating the average readership for a racing news piece by a factor of 70.
Novelty is part of the draw. Whether it’s Ian Botham playing football for Scunthorpe or Nigel Mansell missing fairways at the Australian Open, there is something compelling about sports stars trying something dramatically different, at which they are likely to fall well short of their normal standards.
The real risk of physical danger
Risk is also a factor and, in Pendleton's case, the risk goes beyond the possibility of mere failure. In next Friday’s Foxhunter Chase on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival, she will line up against 23 others over 22 of the stiffest fences in Britain, with real physical danger a constant presence. The most thoroughly canvassed question in our sport just now is whether it can be wise to let her take her chance in such circumstances barely a year after her first riding lesson.
If one’s only aim was to protect racing from potential PR disasters, then ‘no’ would certainly be the answer to that question. But such a safety-first approach would also lead to the closure of Cheltenham and all other jumps tracks where horses and riders are routinely at risk.
I've been back and forth on the Pendleton question. My initial reaction was that the project was completely mad. I remembered how long it took me to feel comfortable in the saddle (years), and I started when I was decades younger than her current age, 35. Aiming at Cheltenham before she had learned to do a rising trot seemed Quixotic and put me in mind of this old limerick:
Said young Croesus, ‘It’s odd, with my cash and all
If I can’t go and win the Grand National!’
But, through being unskilled
He got damn nearly killed
And now he’s a little more rational.
Doubtless that will resonate with those who object to Pendleton’s project on the grounds that it is being funded by Betfair, who are said to be paying her an enormous fee, though none of the reports have been convincing as to the exact sum. I don’t share the general distaste on this score. If you want to get a year’s work out of a nine-times world champion, you will have to pay handsomely.
Inappropriate to question her riding ability
Nor is Pendleton some show-pony dilettante. She has applied herself to the extent of riding out three times a day, six days a week, mostly at an unglamorous point-to-point yard. While her mount in the Foxhunter will be the very talented Pacha Du Polder, she has done most of her racing on relatively pedestrian beasts and had to work hard to keep them in contention in some cases.
I can quite understand why observers would feel queasy about her Cheltenham prospects after she was unseated at Fakenham last month in her first jumps race outside the grassroots point-to-point sphere. But, less than a fortnight later, she won easily around Wincanton and it was at that point it began to feel inappropriate, to me, that her riding ability was still being debated.
Those who would still like to exclude her from the Festival are applying a standard to Pendleton that is never normally applied to other jockeys, amateur or professional. If you’re some teenage lad with a face like a bag of spanners, we will cheerfully let you risk your neck at Cheltenham and elsewhere after only a modest amount of scrutiny, so long as some trainer is happy to trust you. Never won a race over fences? Don't worry, hardly a soul in the stands will have noticed.
That being the way things are, there can be no real justification for denying Pendleton. Does anyone dare advance the case that because this woman is so popular, we can't risk her getting crocked on our premises? The normal procedures were followed when she got her licence. She is fully aware of the risks and as entitled to take them as anyone else.
It strikes me that nearly all those getting involved in the debate can have seen Pendleton in just two races over jumps, at Fakenham and Wincanton. She has taken part in 14 other jumps races but those were all point-to-points, screened by no TV channel and unwatchable unless you happened to be there.
Having been professionally obliged to follow the story, I have seen Pendleton in point-to-points from Oxfordshire to Devon this winter. Fakenham was the nadir. She is clearly a work in progress as a jockey but she has nearly always looked comfortable in the saddle and in control of her mount. I have seen no sign of her being any kind of extra hazard to others in a race.
Even so, she has met with enough bumps in the road to make it clear to observers exactly how difficult it is to become a jump jockey. Here is a world-class athlete, using every ounce of her Olympian commitment and tenacity and finding it hard going. There need be no fear that her accelerated learning programme might somehow be cheapening the achievements of our established riders; on the contrary, it underlines their worth.
There is no denying that Pendleton’s participation in the race immediately after the Gold Cup has the capacity to overshadow jump racing's most prestigious prize, but let no tears be shed over that prospect. Sports editors are still aware of the Gold Cup's significance, and it will still be properly covered for the benefit of committed fans.
When Britain’s most successful female Olympian lines up in the Foxhunter, the tale of what happens next will be told to a much larger audience, to people who would normally pay no attention to sport, never mind racing. It is a moment in the spotlight to make other sports thoroughly jealous. You might want to watch the race through your fingers from behind the sofa, but it would be a curmudgeonly thing indeed to wish Victoria Pendleton had stuck to bicycles.
Chris Cook is racing correspondent for The Guardian