One day after Victoria Pendleton’s anticlimactic exit from the saddle at Fakenham, opinion among racing professionals was sharply divided on the key question of whether she should now be tried in the furnace of the Cheltenham Festival.
Most outspoken of those who don’t fancy that idea is John Francome, the former champion jump jockey and longserving Channel 4 analyst, who strongly feels that Pendleton’s ‘switching saddles’ project should go no further.
“She wants saving from herself,” said Francome, who was dismayed by what he had seen the day before, when Pendleton raced over fences at a professional track for the first time. “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.”
Francome is by no means alone in holding that view, though others expressing similar sentiments here preferred to do so in private. “She’s not ready,” was a phrase used more than once, while another retired jockey added: “She cannot ride properly yet.”
Equally, there is widespread admiration for Pendleton’s commitment and the progress she has made, as well as for the fact that she is having to do her learning under intense scrutiny. “I’m glad I didn’t have that much pressure on my first ride,” said Aidan Coleman after partnering the first winner here at Ascot.
“It’s a very difficult job and we’ve all started off in a lowly little conditional jockeys hurdle or a hunter chase somewhere that nobody cared less about what we did. She’s starting in the public eye and I think that’s very difficult. I think people need to give her a bit of slack.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a little bit worrying,” Coleman added in reference to Pendleton’s failure to stay in the saddle for more than a circuit on Friday. “At the same time, you look how far she’s come. If she goes to Wincanton, that’ll answer the questions about whether she is ready or not. If she goes and gets round, brilliant. I fell off my fair share!”
Similar sympathy was offered in a brief, wry comment from Sir Anthony McCoy. “However many times she falls off, it won’t be as much as me,” he said, which, while true, is mostly a reflection of the fact that McCoy had more than 15,000 rides in his career.
Wincanton on 2 March is indeed the plan for Pendleton and Pacha Du Polder, the talented chaser from whose back she tumbled at Fakenham. Those involved in her Betfair-backed project want, at a minimum, to see her complete the course at a proper track before allowing her to go to the Festival in just under four weeks’ time.
“Between us all, we are going to have a sit down and talk about it and make sure we all do the right thing,” said Paul Nicholls, the trainer of Pacha Du Polder. “If we’re not happy, we’re not happy, but if she can get a nice, clear round in a fortnight’s time and everything goes right, then we’d be back on track.
“She got unseated, it happens to us all, but she’s got to look at it, learn from it and gain experience. It was just a bit of an unfortunate incident. She’s a novice rider and she’s done very well in a short time, but she’s just got to keep on learning.”
Among those happy to hear that Pendleton will go to Wincanton was Richard Pitman - retired from his former careers as a jump jockey and then a broadcaster. “She’s done incredibly well,” said Pitman, who won the Champion Hurdle and the King George VI Chase and famously rode Crisp to be second in Red Rum’s first Grand National.
“I just would like to have seen her have three rides [rather than one or two] every Sunday because you cannot beat experience. My heart bleeds for her because she is so committed and she is so good at what she does. It’s amazing, in a year, what she has done. I just would like to have seen her have 50 rides.”
Video footage showed that Pendleton had had her foot kicked out of her stirrup by a horse falling alongside her when she was unseated at Fakenham but Pitman was not inclined to accept excuses. “Victoria’s horse picked up a little bit early and when that happens, the saddle hits you in the backside and it was just, out the side door.”
Pendleton’s mount had been odds-on to win on Friday, at least in part because of Fakenham’s reputation as a straightforward track to ride around. But that is a misguided impression of a tricky venue according to Jonathan Neesom, a respected analyst with Racing UK.
“As a place to have your first ride, I can think of a lot better,” he said. “It’s very sharp, it’s undulating, the undulations are quite subtle but it takes a lot of knowing.
“If you’re on the outside, you’re forfeiting masses of ground, far more than you would on another track and the fence where she came off in front of the stand has caught out a lot more experienced jockeys than her.”
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