Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder winning the Switching Saddles Hunter Chase at Wincanton Racecourse, Southwest England, Wednesday March 2, 2016. Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton has earned her first win as a jockey, setting her up for a li
AP Photo
March 07, 2016

Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton sat on a horse for the first time barely a year ago.

Next week, she'll be competing on British horse racing's biggest stage.

Amid concerns she is taking on too big a challenge, the 35-year-old Pendleton announced Monday that she has been given a ride at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival. The two-time Olympic gold medalist will be aboard Pacha Du Polder in the Foxhunter Chase on March 18 - the final day of the festival.

''Getting round would be incredible,'' Pendleton said of the 22-fence race in which all competing jockeys are amateurs. ''If I get round on the horse and complete the course, I'll feel like that's a gold medal.''

Pendleton switched sports after winning gold medals in cycling at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, as part of the ''Switching Saddles'' campaign backed by a leading British bookmaker.

She earned her first win as a jockey last week, aboard Pacha Du Polder at Wincanton, having been unseated at Fakenham a week earlier.

''This has been no walk in the park, it has been physically demanding,'' Pendleton said at a news conference in central London. ''I've had to dig deep, but I never wanted to give up.''

John Francome, the retired seven-time champion jumps jockey, has been among those warning Pendleton of the dangers of competing at Cheltenham, saying she is ''an accident waiting to happen'' on a racecourse.

The pace of her race at Cheltenham will be unlike anything Pendleton has experienced so far in her high-profile racing career.

''It is not a decision I have taken lightly,'' she said. ''I feel capable of being part of that race.

''It's going to be nerve-racking, of course, but I've dealt with a lot of pressure and expectation in my time. In fact, I quite enjoy it. I think it brings out the best in what I have to offer as an athlete.''

Paul Nicholls, the trainer of Pacha Du Polder, said he had been a ''little bit dubious'' about Pendleton's attempts to ride at Cheltenham.

''But to be fair to her, she has improved so much that I think now she's well ready for the challenge,'' Nicholls said. ''Pacha Du Polder is the ideal horse, has lots of ability, travels well.''

The Foxhunter Chase takes place 40 minutes after the signature race of the festival - the Gold Cup.

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