Written by Daniel James Parry
With Cheltenham Festival taking place between March 15th and March 18th 2016, we investigate two of the most talked about and intriguing factors of this year’s event.
Primarily, the nightmare to bookmakers up and down the country – Irish former jockey and racehorse trainer Willie Mullins. Ensuring this year’s Cheltenham deck is stacked in his favour, Mullins has entered a spine chilling 60 horses from his native County Carlow into this year’s event taking place in Gloucester.
It could be argued Mullins has a natural flair for the equestrian sport, with his mother Maureen not surprised in the slightest by what her son has achieved. Speaking at length to The Daily Mail, she cited “The signs were always there. He had two ponies when he was six or seven — one was called Just William. Every day he would ride them and he would tell you something about them the others wouldn’t. He has a marvellous memory for the work the horses have done. He never carries a note book.”
Mullins’ appetite for victory began in 1995, when he trained his first Cheltenham Festival winner; Tourist Attraction at the Supreme Novices Hurdle, and has since trained 41 Festival Winners, with a record haul of eight horses trained by Mullins taking the gold last year. However, Cheltenham is not Mullins’ only stomping ground; he’s tasted victory in his home country of Ireland, winning almost every major prize on offer, with The Grand National, The King George, and The Champion Hurdle all under his belt, with a number of victories in France, ensuring his reputation precedes him across Europe.
The other, and arguably a wildcard in the competition, is the participation of Olympic gold medal winning cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, a woman who has cited that horse racing is the most dangerous thing she’s ever done, but aspires to push her life forward by taking up the equestrian sport. It’s believed that Pendleton wants to fill the void left by track cycling in this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Speaking about her retirement to The Daily Mail, Pendleton stated “You miss being part of a team, your fellow athletes, the camaraderie, and I miss some of the coaching staff too. But when I retired it was like “get over it, move on”. I was still the best in the world. The reigning world champion, Olympic champion. I was still the Olympic record holder and track record holder in London. Actually over the 200 nobody went faster at the world’s last week. But I was 31 and I had to move on with my life.”
A number of jockeys across the horse racing community greeted the news of Pendleton’s participation with a cynical attitude, believing it to be nothing more than a reckless publicity stunt for Betfair, the company paying her £200,000 to accept the challenge, which no doubt pushes Pendleton to surpass her peers’ expectations.
Speaking of her entry into the Foxhunter Chase at length, 35 year old Pendleton, who, until last year, had never so much as ridden a horse, told The Daily Mail “‘I have this awful feeling I’m going to end up like Denver Mills from Little Britain, wearing the Great Britain tracksuit, going to places saying, “I won a silver medal at the Olympics. I don’t want to live in the past. Living in the past, for me, is a really uncomfortable prospect. I always felt my cycling career was a stepping stone to something else. The cycling brought me to horses and that pleases me a lot. I’m pushing forward with my life.”
But why horses? Of all the ways to push one’s life forward, entering into a potentially dangerous endeavour such as horse racing seems calculated. Speaking of her new found path to The Daily Mail, she enthusiastically stated “I … love … riding those race horses, It is such a thrill. I love everything about them. Listening to them munching haylage, their smell. It’s weird but the joy of galloping a horse, of working it really well, seeing its ears prick up, getting the timing just right, it’s so good. There really is nothing quite like it. I feel blessed to be having this experience. It’s a very exclusive experience and I’m thrilled to now be considered a competent work rider.”
Pendleton’s debut comes aback Pacha de Polder, encouraged by advisors at the Lawney Hill Stables in Oxfordshire, who have faith in the Olympic gold medallist that she’s prepared to take on the three mile stretch of the Foxhunter Chase.
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