Equestrianism: Caumont pulls a Christmas cracker

Xavier Caumont exceeded his own expectations when winning yesterday's Christmas Cracker Stakes on the second day of the Olympia Show Jumping Championships. The 42-year-old Frenchman, who had never competed here before, only gained his place in the line-up for the London show after winning the Volvo World Cup qualifier in Seville 11 days ago.

Since the French trainer, Patrick Caron, had only sent Caumont to Seville so that he could gain some experience, this month has been an exciting time for the hitherto unknown rider.

Caumont, the second of only two into the timed jump-off, had his task made a great deal easier when Ludger Beerbaum (the European champion and dual Olympic gold medallist) had two fences down on Sprehe Rush On. The Frenchman was in no hurry when jumping a lovely clear round on the eight-year-old chestnut mare whom he owns jointly with Etienne Poillon.

Until this year, Caumont has concentrated on educating young horses and selling them on. But Baladine du Mesnil, who moved into his stables in the south-west of France when she was only six months old, is not for sale despite some good offers. The impressive mare is now being aimed at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

With faults and time in the opening round deciding the lower placings, James Fisher proved the best of the British. He finished fourth with a single error on Tip Toe - three places ahead of John Whitaker on Virtual Village Gran-nusch.

Whitaker had gained the second of two opening day victories on Thursday, when he rode 17-year- old Welham with great panache to win the late evening's Christmas Stocking Stakes. His round included one breathtaking turn at the second last fence, where Welham appeared to bend himself around the wing of the obstacle in mid-air. This athletic feat must have saved more than the 0.07sec by which John Whitaker defeated his younger brother, Michael on Twostep, in the 16-horse jump-off.

John's 17-year-old daughter, Louise, with whom he had teamed up to win the Petplan Family Pairs Relay on Thursday, also had a single error yesterday when finishing equal third on Livingston II for the Riding Revolution Young Show Jumper Award. The top prize went to Jackson Reed-Stephenson riding No Complaints, the only horse to jump clear in the opening round.

William Fox-Pitt was at Olympia to collect the British Equestrian Writers Association Trophy. Having been part of the winning British team - and third individually - in the European Open Three-Day Event Championships, he came top of the poll for the Equestrian Personality of the Year.

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