Kevin Blake's blog (6 July)

    In the week following Victoria Pendleton's first ride in public, Kevin Blake assesses the negative press surrounding the former Olympian's long-term goal of riding at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.

Victoria Pendleton criticism leaves sour taste

The remarkable capacity that some people in racing have to turn something positive into something negative has been on show for the world to see once again in recent days with the furore surrounding Victoria Pendleton’s quest to ride in next year’s Foxhunters Chase.

For those that aren’t familiar with the story, Pendleton is a 34-year-old two-time Olympic gold medallist and nine-time World Champion in cycling events that was approached by Betfair earlier this year with a view to switching her attentions to riding racehorses.

Despite never having sat on a horse until late-February, not only did she agree to the challenge, she set herself the incredibly ambitious goal to ride competitively over fences at the Cheltenham Festival in the Foxhunter Chase just over a year after her first sit on a horse.

The potential positives for horse racing were obvious. Here was a high-profile (Pendleton has over 250,000 followers on Twitter), articulate and widely-admired sportswoman that was willing to dedicate a year of her sporting life to pursue a highly-challenging goal as a jockey.

Race riding is one of those things that looks a lot easier than it is and having a world-class athlete go through the entire process in the public eye had the potential to be a wonderful mainstream showcase for the intricacies of our sport which are so hard to get across to a non-racing audience. It promised to help dispel the oft-heard view that one has to have grown up with horses to make a career as a rider and with women in sport being a hot topic at the moment, it offered an excellent opportunity for racing to showcase its status as one of the very few sports where male and females compete on a level playing field.

Yet, inevitably, there has been no shortage of negativity from within racing and it came to the fore in the aftermath of Pendleton’s first public foray on a racecourse in a charity race at Newbury on Thursday. Just a little over four months on from her very first sit on a horse, Pendleton produced a polished and perfectly adequate performance in the saddle, but that didn’t deter some naysayers who seemingly expected a Dettori-esqe performance from an athlete that is still an absolute beginner in her new pursuit.

It wasn’t just her riding that was critiqued either, as the amount of column inches that she has generated in the racing media was also singled out for scorn, with long-standing apprentice rider Rachael Kneller calling the amount of attention that Pendleton has received as “a slap in the face to hardworking stable kids with a dream who sadly don’t have the media on side.” So much for solidarity amongst women in sport.

It is an unfortunate reality of horse racing that it is a hotbed for jealousy, envy and back biting. By its very nature, it is a sport in which the ability of the horse itself is arguably more than 90% of the equation that leads to success and with the quality of horse that a trainer/jockey receives often being based more on the preferences of wealthy owners or family connections than on merit, accusations of privilege and unjustified opportunities are never far away.

Of course, while there can be plenty of truth in such accusations, they also make for an easy excuse to justify one’s own shortcomings. It is certainly a hell of a lot easier to spout off about an apparent unfair lack of opportunity than it is to work harder and go the extra miles to overcome a lack of privilege and opportunities. Horse racing has produced enough rags-to-riches stories at all levels in all disciplines to show that anyone from any background can get to the top of the sport if they have the ability, work ethic and ambition.

As well as that, don’t for one second think that privilege and easy opportunities are a one-way street to success in horse racing or in any other walk of life. Those that receive a leg-up are unquestionably under much more pressure to succeed than those that start from the bottom, as with great privilege comes great scrutiny.

Such individuals will always be fighting to prove themselves and overcome those accusations that they only got to where they are because of who they are related to or the opportunities they were gifted. Any mistakes they make on the way up are likely to be publicly magnified to a much greater extent than similar mistakes made by self-made individuals.

Victoria Pendleton will be more familiar than most with the nature of this double-edged sword of publicity as well as the expectations and pressures that come with it. This isn’t some talentless, attention-seeking reality TV star that has waltzed into fame and consequent opportunities, this is a world-class athlete that has very much earned the opportunities that have come with this race-riding challenge such as sponsorship and high-level training.

She has set herself an exceptionally testing goal to ride in a race such as the Foxhunter with just a year of experience in the saddle and because of her profile, every single step she takes in her pursuit of this goal will be scrutinised by the wider public, with more than a few individuals undoubtedly willing her to fail.

Indeed, one can only imagine the public and private howls of schadenfreude if she had got run away with on the way to the start or been unseated during the charity race at Newbury last week. That is the price that has to be paid for publicity.

While some in racing would evidently like more attention and publicity for themselves as they pursue success in their careers, they should perhaps be careful what they wish for, as the levels of scrutiny that come with such attention will quickly expose any shortcomings in ability, preparation and rigour.

Learning the ropes in any pursuit in life is tough enough, but doing so on the most public of stages in the face of great scrutiny will break a lot more individuals than it will make. It says a lot about the character, attitude and competitiveness of Victoria Pendleton that she has invited such scrutiny onto herself in her pursuit of this race-riding goal of hers and rather than take pot shots at her, plenty could learn a lot from her.

Like everything in life, a lot of this whole debate comes down to attitude and what one makes of their circumstances. Many people that are gifted privileged opportunities will not have to ability, drive or work ethic to make the most of them and will fail. Similarly, many people that are not given privileged opportunities will use that as a justification for their lack of success when in reality, it is their own lack of ability, drive and work ethic that holds them back.

On the other hand, other types of people from both of those groups use the downsides to their respective circumstances as motivating chips on their shoulder to push them to success. Whether it is the extra scrutiny and lack of true recognition that comes with privilege or the higher work ethic and gumption required by those who are not gifted opportunities, these apparent negatives can be flipped around as positive motivators to defy the doubters and succeed in life independent of circumstance.

Such a difference in attitude is often the only difference between winners and losers. Victoria Pendleton is a proven winner and I have no doubt she will reach every goal she sets for herself in racing.

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