Cheltenham Festival 2016: ‘Victoria Pendleton is brave – and slightly mad’

Cheltenham Festival jockey Lizzie Kelly praises Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton's bravery in taking on the horse racing challenge – but warns that fellow jockeys in her race will not react well

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It’s the Cheltenham Festival finale this Friday, but forget who’ll triumph in the Gold Cup. The big question is: will Victoria Pendleton, the former golden girl of British cycling and game contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, ride a winner in the Foxhunter Chase at 4.10pm today, live on Channel 4?

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And the next question is: is it good – or even safe – for someone with just a year’s experience of riding horses to compete in one of the biggest events of the racing calendar? Lizzie Kelly, one of Britain’s best up-and-coming female jockeys, gives us the view from the stables.

Can anyone ride a race horse in a year?

What do they say, it takes you 10,000 hours to be an expert in something? I’ve put in a lot more than that, along with everyone else I’m lining up with. I first sat on a pony before I can even remember. I first started riding race horses when I was eight or nine. I think a lot of things are learnt over a very long period. Being able to see a stride, knowing whether you’re going too fast or too slow. Those are not things that Victoria Pendleton will have time to think about.

There has never been a female jockey in the Gold Cup, unlike the Grand National. Is Cheltenham a tougher test for women?

Not a lot of people actually ride in the Gold Cup. It’s not a 30-runner race, it’s the top of the top. I imagine that no female jockey – Grand National jockeys like Katie Walsh or Nina Carberry – has been riding horses that could be going in the Gold Cup. If they were riding those kinds of horses, they would get that ride. 

What do you make of Victoria’s challenge?

I think she’s very brave, if not slightly mad, and all credit to her. She’s a perfectly fine rider. She’s only been riding for a year. I don’t know what people were expecting. 

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What exactly is she getting herself into?

The Cheltenham Festival is a completely different kettle of fish to other races. Day-to-day racing, there’s a little bit of room between you all, it’s kind of polite. But when it comes to the Festival, that goes. You don’t have that room in front of you – you are where you are and it’s do or die, gun-pointing-at-your-head type of feeling. It all has to go perfectly.

From my own experience of riding in the Foxhunters’ at Cheltenham once, it’s not something that’s relaxing, it’s not particularly enjoyable. The start is crazy. I was an experienced amateur by the time I rode in that race, and it challenged me.

That’s possibly why I feel a bit sorry for her: she’s being thrown into the amateurs’ Gold Cup; this isn’t a four-runner race round Fakenham, this is the biggest race in an amateur jockey’s career. 

What advice would you give her?

Someone wrote the other day that what she really needs is a good few days’ hunting. I thought that was a brilliant idea, because all that time having to be alert, thinking about what you’re doing for four or five hours solid, probably would do her the world of good.

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Can a novice like Victoria become a problem for other riders?

I think you’ve got to the crux of the matter, and perhaps what everyone’s trying to avoid [saying]. What are the other jockeys going to do? How will they treat her at the start? Is she going to be able to get to where she wants to go?

You can’t even describe the jockeys racing as “amateurs” any more. They’re fantastic jockeys, ridiculously competitive, riding ridiculously good horses for a Cheltenham Festival winner. The entire focus is on winning.

And although her focus won’t be, how fair is it if something happens and it’s her fault and one thing leads to another and someone ends up not winning?

It’s all very well her popping round the back, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, because my grandmother could do that. 

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Victoria Pendleton rides in the St James’s Place Foxhunter’s Chase at 4.10pm on Friday 18 March, live on Channel 4