Despite all odds: Alice Plunkett

  • Alice Plunkett
  • Alice Plunkett
  • Alice Plunkett

Alice Plunkett, racing journalist and presenter - and former eventer and National Hunt jockey - is the only woman to have ridden at both Badminton Horse Trials and over the Grand National course at Aintree. She is married to eventer William Fox-Pitt. The pair have four children.

2016 was both a difficult and an inspirational year for the family. Despite the odds, Williams recovery from a terrible brain injury (incurred by a cross-country fall in late 2015) saw him compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now that Alice is presenting for ITV, and has a new role at Cheltenham, we ask what else is on the horizon.

Hello Alice. Tell us about your entry into the world of broadcasting - and how thats overlapped with your love of racing and eventing?

I was very lucky. When I left university I evented full time. I was sponsored by a company called Racing Green which meant that I could run a team of horses and, at the same time, I was point-to-pointing.

A television company were doing a series called Reach for the Stars. It was a series on young people. They had a gymnast, and a musician, and they wanted a rider. They followed me at Blenheim - the guy who was doing the story was John Peel, the radio presenter. I fell in the water but it was great telly! At the end of it, [John said] that I’d come across okay, and if I wanted to do more of it…

My focus at the time was very much on my sport, and that’s what I really enjoyed, but I then started to do a few things. I worked for Fox FM, which was my local radio at Blenheim, the next year. I worked at Festival Radio, getting jockeys out of the weighing room to be interviewed…and the guy at Festival Radio asked if I’d like to have my own show.

It was crazy, really. Marcus Armytage wrote an article about it, and it went from there. I ended up asked to do The Derby and Royal Ascot, and somebody from the racing channel saw that and asked me to do a screen test, and so I got a job at the racing channel. And all the time I was still riding and saw it as a really nice thing to do alongside [my sport].

First and foremost, my passion was sport, and I sort of fell into the broadcasting side, I would say, but gradually I started to do more and more. When I did Badminton in 2000 I got offered good money for my horses, and I was 27, so that’s when I went full time in broadcasting. I’ve been so blessed. It’s an amazing way of life. I’ve had great opportunities to travel the world and meet interesting people.

We hear youre doing the Willbury Wonderpony charity flat race?

Indeed I am! I’ve ridden in a lot of charity races over the years. I haven’t done one for a long time. I was approached to get involved. Hannah Francis touched all of us in the equestrian community, and both my sisters died very young: my little sister was 16 and the other was 27, so kicking cancer’s butt is close to my heart.

So I thought I’d give it one more go, but I have to say, it’s coming up at a really tricky time of year! It’s April 20th, so it’s at the back of Cheltenham and Aintree, so I’ve got very little time to ride out. I’m giving it a good go, though I’m not expecting to win by any stretch - although I’ve got a lovely horse to ride. It’s a huge privilege to get to go round Cheltenham again, at the age of 44 with 4 children. (Find out more at www.championswillberry.org.uk - Alices donation page can be found at virginmoneygiving.com).

Best of luck with that. So, youve got a new role at Cheltenham Racecourse: youve been appointed by the Jockey Club as non-executive racecourse commitee director. What does that entail?

I think it’s a really interesting [role]. I’m absolutely overwhelmed and flattered to have been considered for the board at Cheltenham, and I’m alongside some hugely experienced people. So for me at the moment, it’s really a learning process. Just watching the Cheltenham team at work is absolutely fascinating: they’re so professional, so driven. They work so hard.

Cheltenham is iconic - and has been iconic to me throughout my life. I was brought up near Chipping Norton. For all of us in the Cotswolds, Cheltenham is huge - so to be involved in its infrastructure is really interesting. It gives me a whole new angle to learn about a side of racing that I knew very little about. Hopefully, I can listen and offer bits and bobs - I’m really enjoying the board meeting side of things. It feels very grown up [laughs].

I wanted to ask about 2016, because you had a strange and difficult year by all accounts - both wonderful, as your husband William [Fox-Pitt] competed at Rio, but there was a long period of recovery beforehand, after his terrible injury. What was that very dramatic year like?

The call I got on October 17th [2015] was undoubtably my worst nightmare. I wasn’t in France - William was competing in the Young Horse World Championships. He felt very confident. But he fell, and was left in a coma.

I didn’t get out there for twelve hours. When I got there - well, you go into a slightly weird overrdrive. Did I think at any point during the build-up that we would be going to Rio? No, but I feel very lucky that we were part of a world class team and Will was supported as a potential Rio athlete throughout his recovery and brain injury. Because I can’t imagine what you would do, as a wife and a mother, if you didn’t have the support network we had.

It was a very challenging time. William is very much the alpha in our set-up and I realised that he’s the point of an enormous pyramid. He deals with so many people, and so many people wanted news on him. So dealing with all that was a pretty weird time, feeling responsible for dealing with that knowing full well that it could impact his chances of going to Rio, how all the [news] was going to be interpreted, how the staff would interpret it. All of that.

But we are slightly evangelical now because we were so lucky. We were teetering on the brink of a very dark place, and we came back from it. [William] was partially-sighted for quite a long time, but now he’s fully recovered, and functioning, and back as a husband and a dad first and foremost, but also the great rider that he is.

We’re all so proud of him and what he did at the Olympics. It was a very tough challenge and it was absolutely remarkable achievement for him and his team altogether.

So yes - I’ve come out of the end of 2016 not being sad to see the back of it, I have to say! And feeling very lucky that my family is back intact and looking forward to the future.

What are you looking forward to at Cheltenham this year?

I’m really looking forward to being part of the new ITV Cheltenham team. I’ve done 15 Cheltenhams for Channel 4 and - well, it’s so boring that I keep on saying this, but I’m so lucky. There are a lot of better broadcasters than me who didn’t make the cut for one reason or another but I am very lucky to be part of this.

Ed Chamberlin is a great frontman. ITV are hugely committed, which is very lucky for racing. As we know, most sports have two or three days on terrestrial telly, but we’ve got 43 on ITV1 and 50-odd on ITV4, so we’ve getting great exposure.

I’m also looking forward to being part of the committee, because it means on Sunday we look at Cheltenham as it prepares for the big meeting and have a look at what goes on behind the scenes…and my God, it’s a monster operation, what the team put into it.

So that’s a learning curve for me, but mostly I’m looking forward to the racing. Although not one of last year’s champions are returning, for one reason or another, there’s some fantastic young horses coming through.

I am a huge fan of Cue Card and have been since he won the bumper as a four year old. Now it’s looking like he’s going to be favourite for the Gold Cup this year, and what redemption it would be if he could win it - most of us feel he would have won it last year if he hadn’t fallen. I can’t wait for what I hope will be Cue Card’s Gold Cup!

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Cotswold Homes.