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Olympic champ saddles up on Gold Cup day, the biggest date on the National Hunt calendar

Friday is one of the biggest days in the horse racing calendar, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup – and the bookies could be nursing a hangover as big as those of Irish punters celebrating St Patrick’s Day in the Gloucestershire town tonight should Olympic keirin champion Victoria Pendleton win the Foxhunter Chase.

It’s a year since the 35-year-old first rode a horse as part of the Switching Saddles initiative launched by Betfair with the aim of her landing a ride in the race nicknamed the Cheltenham Gold Cup for Amateurs, and her participation was confirmed earlier this month.

Right now, Pendleton’s mount, Pacha Du Polder, is a 16/1 shot to win tomorrow – but a spokesman for Ladbrokes says they are expecting huge amounts to be gambled on the track cycling star turned jump jockey, on top of the money being wagered on the Gold Cup itself.

"Pendleton is going to send punters potty,” said Ladbrokes spokesman David Williams, quoted on Mirror.co.uk. ”The sums set to be gambled will be eye-watering.

"She's going to cap off the biggest week of our year by providing the busiest hour we've known here.

"If she's in contention at 4.15 it will be deafening. The idea of her winning is brilliant for racing but terrifying for our accountants.

"Pacha Du Polder could be one of the most popular each-way picks we've ever known," he added.

Pendleton’s change of sport hasn’t been welcomed with open arms by everyone on the National Hunt scene, however.

In February, former champion jockey turned TV pundit John Francombe said she needed “saving from herself” and was “an accident waiting to happen” after she was unseated from Pacha Du Polder during her first National Hunt race at Fakenham in Norfolk.

On her next outing, however, at Wincanton, she romped home in first place to claim her maiden victory.

In an interview with the Observer last Sunday, Pendleton was in no doubt that she had made the right decision, and said she’d rather have ridden horses than bikes when she was younger.

She said her father – a keen cyclist – had a sister “who was really into horses. She was into show jumping and that sort of thing.

“He thinks they’re dangerous. She loves a naughty pony and my dad can’t think of anything worse. He’s like: ‘Why’d you want to do that? They’re too expensive and you have to muck ’em out. They’ve got a brain. Get a bike. Much better.’

“Whenever I asked about horse riding lessons, he was like: ‘Bikes are much better.’ So, that’s that.”

Comparing her new sport with the one in which she won two Olympic gold medals and nine rainbow jerseys in the world championships, she said: “The thing is with the horse racing, I don’t feel that level of expectation.

“There’s so many variables. Whereas I used to go into a track race knowing every single power output for the last however many sessions, my peak power, my mean power over five seconds, six seconds, 10 seconds, what gear I was going to ride, how I was going to ride it tactically.

“Whereas you get on a horse and first of all, it’s got a brain and sometimes has its own ideas on where it would like to start, stop and go during a race. And then you’ve got a bunch of other horses with jockeys on board doing whatever they think is necessary for that specific moment.

“There’s just so much going on that you can’t go into it with such a strong sense of what should come out the other side. You have to be very open-minded and flexible. That’s so different and that takes the pressure off because it’s not so planned out.

“You have to just live that moment and make the decision to the best of your ability. I quite like that,” she added.

Here’s Pendleton talking about her journey in a publicity video for Betfair.

And here she is winning the keirin at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.