Where do the very best retired sportswomen go? For the most part it seems they disappear into the realms of coaching following a few years spent on the TV circuit and a few more as contestants in gameshows such as ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.’
Exhibit A: Rebecca Adlington, who collected four Olympic Medals including two Gold’s in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and retired, aged just 23, in 2013. Adlington was the first British swimmer to win two Olympic Golds in 100 years and her achievements saw her bestowed with an OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours list. In 2015, after her time in the I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here jungle, she became a first-time mum.
British cyclist Victoria Pendleton has had a similarly outstanding career, winning nine world titles, Commonwealth Gold and two Olympic Golds. She was appointed an MBE (Member British Empire) in 2009 and given a CBE in the 2013 New Year Honours list.
However, the 35-year-old did not marry until 2013, a year after she retired, but she has not started a family or yet appeared in a gameshow. In fact, in an unprecedented move, in mid-2015 Pendleton announced her intention to become a jockey and compete in the Foxhunter Chase at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.
It was a lot more than a pipe dream as nine-time champion jumps racing trainer Paul Nicholls and British eventing team’s performance manager Yogi Breisner were immediately drafted in to give her guidance.
Pendleton made her competitive debut in August 2015, finishing second in a Flat Amateur Riders’ Handicap at Ripon. That was some achievement considering she only took her first ever riding lesson in February 2015.
Subsequently Pendleton has had laser eye surgery, due to concerns her contact lenses may become dislodged when race-riding, and she has also become a six-days-a-week visitor to the British Racing School riding out at 7.30am come rain, come shine.
Initially, Pendleton’s efforts, supported by the Betting Exchange Betfair, were not inspirational. Her first ride in a point-to-point was pulled-up and she was then jocked-up on a number of runners with limited chances.
January 31st 2015 was a big day for Pendleton though as she was touched off in a photo-finish on her intended Cheltenham mount, Pacha Du Polder in a point-to-point. However, the same horse unseated her on her first ride under National Hunt Rules in mid-February.
This departure prompted former jockey turned ‘jockey coach’ Steve Smith Eccles to call for her Foxhunter Chase aspirations to be shelved for a year. Meanwhile former champion jockey John Francome was more vociferous declaring “she cannot ride,” adding she is “an accident waiting to happen” and “needs saving from herself!”
But the tide truly turned on March 2nd when Pacha Du Polder received a competent Pendleton ride to score at Wincanton in all-the-way fashion.
Suddenly the negative press was replaced with upbeat headlines as this acid-test of a race not only gave Victoria Pendleton her first winning ride it booked her place (and Pacha Du Polder’s) in the Foxhunter Chase, a race often referred to as the ‘Gold Cup for Amateur Riders’, on March 18th.
Victory for Victoria Pendleton at the Cheltenham Festival will bring both horseracing and Betfair the front-page headlines it yearns. Can it happen? Bookmaker’s William Hill say it is a 16/1 shot. They also offer 100/1 about her winning the race and subsequently being awarded the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Accolade.
With a classy horse and a talented Olympic sportswoman in the saddle, I’d be happy enough to take my chances with Betfair’s 3/1 about her finishing in the place paying positions.