Victoria Pendleton saddle saga makes racing look desperate

Tipping Point: Cheltenham Festival should not need celebrity gimmicks to market itself

Accident waiting to happen? Victoria Pendleton (in red cap), riding Pacha Du Polder, is unseated during the Foxhunters’ Steeplechase at Fakenham on February 19th. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

There can be little more symptomatic of racing’s insecurity than the continuing attempts to sell the upcoming Cheltenham Festival through the retired double-Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton’s ambitions as a rider there.

Pendleton had never sat on a horse a year ago, but, backed by a betting firm, a “switching saddles” project was announced, with the aim being to ride in the Foxhunters’ Steeplechase, the most prestigious prize for amateur riders at Cheltenham.

It is fair to say that a sizeable dollop of scepticism was directed at the idea of a complete novice becoming technically proficient enough in such a short space of time to tackle 22 fences on racing’s biggest stage and not prove a danger to herself or others. That scepticism has only increased.

Some of Pendleton's public efforts to date have been ropy, including falling off when galloping in a straight line during a flat race. She was unseated in her first racecourse start over fences at lowly Fakenham on Friday, an incident which prompted the legendary former champion jockey John Francome to describe her as an "accident waiting to happen".

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The safety issue has added more fuel to a fiery saga which initially provoked disgruntled claims about other female jockeys not getting the same opportunities as a celebrity. There was also irritation about it being just a publicity stunt, which it is, and an irrelevance to racing’s real narrative, which it is too.

None of which deflects an iota from Pendleton’s pluck. No doubt she has her own career reasons for taking this on, and she has admitted to being simply bored after retiring from the other kind of saddle. The PR bods were hardly up all night thinking up the pitch once this idea was floated.

Courage

But riding a thoroughbred over fences at more than 30mph takes courage. You can do nothing particularly wrong and still get badly hurt. Whatever about being given opportunities, no one can quibble with the application and effort Pendleton has put into making the most of them.

It would be easy to pass the whole thing off as yet another piece of “morkoting” fluff, the tried and trusted shortcut of pinning a famous face to something, were it not for the enthusiasm with which racing has adopted that famous face as a prism through which to view its greatest shop window.

This is the Cheltenham Festival, the culmination of a season, containing the best of the best from both Britain and Ireland, the week that has spawned the history that gives National Hunt racing its sense of itself. It simply doesn’t get better. This is its greatest statement to the world.

Yet an inordinate amount of the run-in continues to be devoted to this Pendleton gimmick after much of the winter has already seen headlines about her progress through point-to-point outposts rather than the actual stars of the racing show.

Pendleton can hardly be blamed for that, nor can her sponsors be blamed for milking it for all its worth. But it does say something about both racing’s self-image and the sport’s status in Britain that this yarn has been so wholeheartedly embraced.

The justification, as ever, is selling to the casual floating sports fan something that can seem complicated and mysterious from the outside, a process that seemingly requires “dumbing down” the very mystery and complication which attracts core fans in the first place.

Horse racing is often accused of insularity, but it is acutely conscious of what the outside world thinks of it, something manifested at times in a defensive sense of entitlement but more often in obsequiously bending over backwards to try and ingratiate itself with that great amorphous blob known as the general public.

Trying too hard is never a good look, and that the public, by and large, prefer to choose for themselves what to like or dislike hasn’t stopped British racing and, to an extent, racing in Ireland, too, trying increasingly trying to flog itself through a celebrity prism. The sport is being sold through what others say about it rather than for what it actually does.

Kyle in pole position

It’s an attitude which means that cultural king of the lowest common denominator,

Jeremy Kyle

, is apparently in pole position to head ITV’s new racing coverage next year, his outstanding horsey credentials presumably being his profile and an ability to simultaneously shout and fill out a Lucky 15.

Right now, though, there's a fair chance that a good chunk of the Cheltenham 2016 narrative won't revolve around Ruby Walsh or Barry Geraghty, Vautour or Cue Card, but the will-she-won't-she tale of a former cyclist with a history of falling off and who the public kind of know.

Maybe this is the way to secure column inches, air time and retweets but it’s gimmicky clickbait, which, yes, people will check out, just as they would any Eddie-the-Eagle-style gimmick, before quickly moving on to something else.

And ultimately, it all screams of a chronic lack of self-confidence in racing being able to sell itself on its own merits, that this most thrilling, nuanced and elemental of sports, which has captivated for centuries, supposedly isn’t enough to capture the popular imagination all by itself.

As well being depressingly insecure, it’s also fundamentally wrong. Cheltenham is the ultimate proof of that. It’s well able to sell itself. It doesn’t need stunts.

If some of the public, or the media, can't get the pull of the Gold Cup or the Champion Hurdle, and the intoxicating cocktail of intense blood-and-guts competition at one of sport's most captivating natural amphitheatres, with colossal betting hardly irrelevant either, then they're never going to get racing as a whole, no matter how much PR manipulation is invested in trying to change their minds.

All it does is make a proud sport look desperate.