CHELTENHAM, England (AP) — Victoria Pendleton gave a thumbs-up and a wave to the cheering crowd as she was welcomed into the winner's enclosure by thousands of fans at the Cheltenham Festival.

She'd just finished fifth in a race on Friday, but was being treated like a champion.

Barely a year after sitting on a horse for the first time, Pendleton — an Olympic cycling champion-turned-amateur jockey — exceeded all expectations by producing a smooth, error-free ride aboard Pacha Du Polder in the Foxhunter Chase.

She showed no nerves on the highest stage in British horse racing and was closing in on third place when she crossed the line in the 24-horse race for amateur jockeys over more than three miles.

"It's such a rush riding a thoroughbred racehorse over jumps," said Pendleton, who won gold medals for Britain in cycling at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

"To be accepted as one of the (horse-racing) crowd is something very special. It's one of the greatest achievements of my life."

Pendleton earned 936 pounds ($1,350) in prize money for placing fifth. But for an ambitious sportswoman like Pendleton, this was more about the challenge than the money.

She turned to horse racing at the start of 2015 as part of the "Switching Saddles" campaign, which was backed by a leading British bookmaker. Pendleton was unseated in her first point-to-point race, and many pundits and ex-jockeys warned her of the dangers of competing at Cheltenham.

However, Pendleton took to her task, staying at the back of the field in the early stages of her race to keep free from trouble. She moved slowly through the field on the 9-year-old Pacha Du Polder, which continued to jump well and stayed on as her rivals faded.

Such was her achievement and the profile she has given to racing, Pendleton was allowed to return to the winner's enclosure after the race, which is usually the preserve of those who place in the top four.

"All the dissenters said she would fall off at the first," said Andy Stewart, the owner of Pacha Du Polder, "... but she got round nicely and the horse looked after her. What Victoria has done today is magnificent. She is a credit to the sport."

Stewart said he hopes the rules governing amateur licences will be changed so Pendleton can ride over the Grand National fences in the Fox Hunters' Chase at Aintree next month.

Earlier, Don Cossack won the Cheltenham Gold Cup — Britain's most prestigious jumps race — as a 9-4 favorite after Cue Card fell at the third-to-last fence in his bid for the Triple Crown of British jump racing and winnings of nearly $2 million.

Cue Card misjudged his jump and tumbled to the ground, having just surged into the lead.

That left Don Cossack and Djakadam to fight for victory, and Don Cossack had the stronger finish up the hill to win by about five lengths. The winning jockey, 23-year-old Bryan Cooper, justified his decision to ride Don Cossack over Don Poli, who was at the back of the field for most of the 22-fence race before finishing third.

Cue Card won the Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase this season, giving him the opportunity to claim a bonus of 1 million pounds ($1.45 million) put up by the Jockey Club in Britain to any horse winning all three Grade One races. The winner's prize was worth more than 327,000 pounds ($475,000).

"He's absolutely fine," said Colin Tizzard, who trains Cue Card. "He's doesn't have a care in the world. That's racing."

Don Cossack has been one of the top chasers in Britain and Ireland this season, except for a mistake at the King George in December when he fell while travelling well and mounting a challenge.

"There was never a moment's worry," said owner Michael O'Leary, who also owns the Ryanair airline. "He jumped brilliantly and Bryan gave him a superb ride. He was always in control."

Willie Mullins, the trainer of Djakadam and Don Poli, is still seeking his first Gold Cup win. Djakadam was runner-up for the second year running.