British five on a high for Paris Show

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The Independent Online

There will be no shortage of confidence among the top five British riders when they compete in the Paris Horse Show, which begins today at the Palais Omnisports de Bercy.

Four of them - John and Michael Whitaker, Geoff Billington and Robert Smith - filled the top four places in the Volvo World Cup qualifier at Bologna on Sunday. Nick Skelton, who missed the Italian show, was runner- up in the Bordeaux qualifier the previous weekend when beaten by just 0.05sec.

The Whitaker brothers have already qualified for the World Cup final, which will be held in Gothenburg from 30 April to 4 May. Smith, Billington and Skelton will be hoping to make their places secure in the Paris qualifier on Sunday. If they all get through, Britain will have the biggest contingent of finalists since 1991 when John Whitaker won on Milton.

Smith had not given the final much thought until gaining 20 qualifying points with his victory at Olympia in December on Tees Hanauer. The 35- year-old son of Harvey Smith now needs about six further points, which he would collect for finishing 11th or higher in Paris.

Smith will probably rely on Tees Hanauer, now 17, on Sunday. He is anxious to avoid putting pressure on Big Time, another of his mounts for Paris, but the eight-year-old dark bay stallion looks a wonderfully exciting prospect for the future.

Britain's reliance on older horses may at last be coming to an end. Virtual Village It's Otto, with whom Billington finished sixth in last year's Olympics, is still only 11; Skelton has a splendid partner in 10-year- old Zalza and Michael Whitaker's nine-year-old Ashley has shown impressive form.

These horses will all be in action in Paris, along with the chunky 10- year-old Barry Bug who is seen as a possible replacement for John Whitaker's elderly stars, Grannusch and Welham.

Bug, who used to be ridden by Whitaker's 16-year-old daughter Louise, still has plenty to prove, - but he has made headway in the right direction, finishing third in competitive classes in both Bordeaux and Bologna. Whitaker is, however, expected to ride the more experienced 17-year-old Welham on Sunday.