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Cheltenham Festival: Opinion split as Victoria Pendleton show rolls into town

By Kevin Garside

There was a time when the horse was all that mattered, when equine love was enough to bring swathes of devotees to a blessed vale in England for one week in early spring.

There is still a deal of wonder and excitement attached to Festival Week but it is no longer sufficient to confine the joy to national hunt folk. Big Buck's was once the name of a horse. Now it is the name of the game, a commercial imperative driving business at the heart of the piece.

Through this great opening of the gates rides Victoria Pendleton, a telegenic refugee from track cycling turned promotional vehicle for the event.

Hitherto the Foxhunter was a serious proposition for amateur jockeys in the lee of the main event. For some it has become the principal attraction on the Festival's blue riband day.

Pendleton's features blazed from the front page of the trade bible, 'Racing Post', last week the day after the announcement was made that she would be going to the tape on the back of Pacha Du Polder, trained by Paul Nicholls.

All involved praised the incredible progress made in the year since she first thrust her leg in a stirrup. Fair enough, but is she up to riding here?

Grand National-winning jockey Mick Fitzgerald, now a Channel 4 pundit, said: "After she was unseated at Fakenham I thought 'if this is as good as she is, she's going to struggle'.

"But at Wincanton she was like another person, much more assured. It was a completely different ball game. It was as if the competitive athlete took over, as if she knew it was her final chance. So yes, I'd say she is good enough to be riding in the Foxhunter. Capable of competing, good enough to be competitive."

Seven-time champion jockey John Francome disagreed. He said: "I hope she gets round safely, but if she was my sister or my daughter I would be worried because she's not ready.

"Pacha Du Polder is a very good horse and she'll be fine when everything's in a straight line, but if the horse jinks, she'll be off. She is terribly plucky, but this isn't hockey. You don't just fall off and get a bruise."

Cheltenham clerk of the course Simon Claisse expects the ground to dry out slightly ahead of the start of the four-day Festival today.

The going was described as soft on Thursday morning after rain on Wednesday, but the forecast for the next week is a dry one. Claisse said: "We've come through that deluge in pretty good shape.

"The ground has taken it well. Having got to good to soft, good in places we are now back to soft.

"They say on Gold Cup day we might get a couple of millimetres, but it's predominantly dry."

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