From the vault: Switching saddles with Victoria Pendleton

In March 2016, two-time Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton took on the odds, the doubters and her own fears to compete in the amateur Foxhunter Chase at horse racing’s celebrated Cheltenham Festival. Her challenge was the result of a marketing and sponsorship campaign by Betfair and the London-based Pitch agency, whose founder Henry Chappell puts its success down to credibility and co-operation.

From the vault: Switching saddles with Victoria Pendleton

With former soccer star Rio Ferdinand announcing a Betfair-backed move into boxing, revisit our feature on the bookmaker’s campaign which saw Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Victoria Pendleton switch into a different kind of saddle to compete in the Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

It is shortly after 4pm on 18th March 2016, and double Olympic champion cyclist Victoria Pendleton is at the start line of another race.

This is not a world final, but the British press and public attention would suggest that it might be. Casual viewers across the UK flick over to televisions in offices and pubs, scroll Twitter feeds and check website updates. Something unusual is about to happen, and not just because it is almost four years since Pendleton rode a bike in a competitive race.

Because, in any case, Pendleton is not on a bike. She is sitting on a nine-year-old gelding named Pacha du Polder, awaiting starter’s orders in the Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

“Paul Nicholls, the trainer, and the other experts were happy for her to compete but she still had to want to do it,” recalls Henry Chappell, the founder and chief executive of London-based sports and entertainment marketing agency Pitch. “She’s the one that had to take the line. Because to be standing at the start line with 30 other horses, to run over three miles over 27 fences – it’s a fucking scary enterprise! It is. Anything can happen.

Pendleton had her first horse riding lesson a year before tackling the Foxhunter Chase

“And it’s not just your welfare at stake, it’s the other competitors and the other horses. And it’s in front of 60,000 drunken Irishmen and millions of people watching on terrestrial television. You’re putting yourself out there. She really understood the enormity of what she was going to do and I think, as a result of that, that came through.”

It was Pitch and Chappell who had got Pendleton to the start line in the first place, as the culmination of a long campaign for the world’s largest online betting exchange.

“That was Betfair,” Chappell explains, “who are an ongoing client of ours and were looking for a campaign that could differentiate them for Cheltenham, which, for the betting industry, is like Christmas is for the retail industry. They take more money from those four days at Cheltenham that at any other time of the year.

“It’s a very competitive marketplace, though, with lots of betting companies doing similar promotions year on year. There’s a wall of branded noise, so it’s very hard to stand out and to create that cut-through at a crucial commercial time for them.”

The task for Pitch, then, was to create a branded campaign that would differentiate Betfair from its competitors in a pivotal period. It was a long way from there, however, to sitting an Olympic cycling champion atop a National Hunt thoroughbred.

The first step to getting Pendleton involved, Chappell remembers, was “a bit of insight” from market research that suggested more than nine in ten of those who bet on the festival “said that they would not be brave enough to ride at Cheltenham”. Chappell and his team then asked themselves who might be, and came up with the idea of converting an athlete from another sport into a rider capable of taking on the Gloucestershire course in the amateur Foxhunters Chase, the race just following the blue-riband Gold Cup.

The concept was one thing, the execution another. Pitch and Betfair needed an athlete who was physically suitable, available, and who could “represent the Betfair brand correctly”. Pendleton soon emerged as the leading candidate.

“As a cyclist she had the right size and the right sort of skillset; she’d recently retired so the availability was there,” Chappell says. “But most importantly, she had credibility. I think that’s what made it work. It wasn’t a PR stunt, it was an integrated marketing campaign that was putting Betfair directly in the field of play at the most important horse racing event in the year.

“They wanted this to be promotional for horse racing as well and that was the strength of the idea. It kind of had a bit of a higher purpose. It wasn’t just a great brand-building campaign for Betfair at a key time, it also had the added effect of being promotional for horse racing. But that was only the case because it had credibility running to its core, and the starting point for that was the fact that Victoria was Britain’s greatest ever female Olympic athlete, so therefore the narrative just worked brilliantly. Because could we get Victoria Pendleton, Britain’s greatest ever female Olympic athlete, to compete at the Olympics of horse racing: Cheltenham.”

Pitch contacted Pendleton’s agent, Chris Evans-Pollard, who took his client to the agency’s West End office for an exploratory conversation in early 2015. Chappell first asked about her availability, and got an encouraging response. Then, he asked what she thought about horse racing. “And she didn’t stop talking for about ten minutes.”

Pendleton, as it turned out, was a lapsed horse racing devotee. Childhood pony-riding lessons and trips to Newmarket with her grandmother had been interrupted by her rise through the cycling ranks, but she retained an affection for the sport and the animals.

Pitch was convinced it had found its saddle switcher, but Betfair took its time to confirm the campaign. With the 2016 Foxhunter Chase a little over a year away, and a breadth and length of campaign that was “out of kilter with how betting companies usually operate”, the sponsor was not going to rush into any agreement. “It took some period because Betfair scrutinised their marketing spend forensically,” says Chappell. “They’re very, very smart people.”

Once that process was completed, the campaign was launched ahead of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival. That gave Pendleton, who “hadn’t sat on a horse at that stage”, time to train, and the campaign team time to build her progress into a schedule of landmarks – “her first day on the gallops, the first time she jumped a fence, the first time she competed in a point to point, her first time on a National Hunt course, etc, etc.”

Striking the right tone was also vital. In the years following its 2000 launch, Betfair had gone out of its way to be a “great citizen for the sport of horse racing” so as to alleviate early misgivings about the ramifications of its exchange model. Not only that, but there was a need for the initiative to avoid the air of cheekiness – and occasional waft of obnoxiousness – that characterise the promotional activities of another of UK betting’s biggest names.

“Bear in mind that in this process, Betfair and Paddy Power merged,” explains Chappell. “So we’re talking about the same company, and they had decided to keep both brands. So the idea of doing this – and it’s audacious, and there’s a degree of mischief around this – it didn’t have to be mischievous in a provocative sense.” 

Betfair’s links within the horse racing industry put a lot of assets at the campaign’s disposal. “Their long-term association with Paul Nicholls was very helpful: he’s the Sir Alex Ferguson of National Hunt racing,” says Chappell, whose office wall bears a signed Manchester United shirt. Beyond that elite-level expertise, there were specialists who could help familiarise Pendleton with racing technique, and involve her in the grassroots level point-to-point scene, away from the major courses. “Point to pointing is the heartbeat of horse racing and we wouldn’t really look at it,” says Chappell, who adds that Pendleton “loved being around that, and she’s still doing point to pointing now”.

Pendleton enjoys her remarkable fifth-placed finish on Pacha Du Polder

Putting such an infrastructure around their talent not only gave the team the best chance of getting through the campaign, it also protected them from charges that they were indulging in a freak show. The possibility that Pendleton might actually be able to pull off the challenge was crucial in properly engaging the sporting press, and racing writers in particular, but Pitch and Betfair also needed to assure observers that they were not putting riders or horses at risk.

“Whilst overall the racing was 100 per cent behind this,” Chappell concedes, “and there’d been a big part of it to ensure that the Jockey Club and Cheltenham and the British Horseracing Authority were all not just happy with it but fundamentally believed that it was a good thing, understandably, there were some people who were negative.

“So for example, John Francome, the legendary jockey, one of the greats of the sport, was very critical of it. And I think that really affected Victoria, as well, she was hurt and her confidence was undermined by that criticism. It actually created some more interest in the overall thing, so from our point of view it was kind of good, but from Victoria’s point of view it was difficult. The emotional side of her as a personality was great for the campaign, we knew it would also create certain challenges.”

Indeed, whatever external doubts there may have been about Pendleton’s ability – and they were exacerbated by her fall off Pacha Du Polder at Fakenham in February – they were nothing compared to the doubts in her own mind. Pendleton is a fiercely competitive woman – no Olympic champion could fail to be – but she is also a famously emotional individual. That added an element of jeopardy that was good for the narrative of the campaign, but perhaps less helpful for the nerves of those supporting her bid.

Chappell says the team had “planned every scenario”, including failure or abdication, and took the view that criticism would be spared “for trying and coming up a bit short”. Pendleton, in the weeks running up to Cheltenham, had done everything asked of her by the authorities. “She’d ridden more than a number of her competitors in that race,” Chappell notes. “She’d used the benefit of our support around her, but she’d taken every opportunity she could to be on a horse.”

Henry Chappell, founder of London-based sports agency Pitch, who helped to co-ordinate Victoria Pendleton’s appearance at Cheltenham

All that was left to do was race – and when the time came, Pendleton managed what she described as “probably the greatest achievement of my life”. In a typically gutsy, defiant performance, with hearts in mouths on the racecourse and beyond, she rode her way to a remarkable fifth place.

“A campaign is something that has a defined goal,” says Chappell, “an objective that you’re trying to achieve, and because it was really clear what that was and everybody was unified about it – whether that be Victoria herself, her husband, Chris Evans-Pollard, Paul Nicholls, any members of my team or the Betfair client. All we wanted was for her to get home safe, and anything extra was a bonus.

“The nice thing was that Betfair, on their promotion, was paying out on coming fifth for each-way bets, so anyone who bet on her each way on Betfair won,” Chappell adds. “And Betfair had had a brilliant Cheltenham in terms of their business, in terms of new customers, and seen a big uplift from it, so the business model had been proven. It had worked.”

The ‘Switching Saddles’ campaign had delivered in terms of raw numbers. UK£5.1 million was matched on Betfair exchanges for the Foxhunter Chase, a 35 per cent increase on 2015, while the volume of bets went up 49 per cent. But of as almost as much satisfaction for Pitch and Betfair, perhaps, was that they had set their sights on a daunting sporting target and achieved it, and helped Pendleton write a staggering postscript to a splendid career.

For Chappell, that is a tribute to everyone involved.

“It did require a considerable resource but it worked because it was actually collaborative, and everyone wanted to get it on,” he says. “Everyone wanted to try and make it happen.”

This feature originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of SportsPro Magazine. To purchase back issues or subscribe, click here.