Equestrian: Virtual Village pairing clear up

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A NEW form of jumping class, the Hildon Jean Challenge, resulted in a home win for John Whitaker riding Virtual Village Hunter's Level paired with Nick Skelton on Virtual Village Showtime at the Royal Windsor Horse Show yesterday.

Britain's leading show-jumpers outstripped the others to produce double clears in the three-team jump-off. The Belgians Stefan Corten with Korbus and Ludo Philippaerts on Nasper finished clear but 3.9sec adrift. Only three of the eleven pairs to start finished the first round without jumping faults. The class was then decided over a separate relay course, with the first of each pair jumping the course in one direction, then passing the whip to their partner who had to jump it in the opposite direction.

Guy Goosen on Carat and John Popely (It's Her) led off in the jump-off and Goosen went fast and clear, but when Popely hit two fences, adding 10 seconds to their combined times, he appeared to ease up.

Whitaker and Skelton, obvious favourites, whose most likely rivals Michael Whitaker and Geoff Billington withdrew when Virtual Village Absalom knocked his leg in the practice ring, fulfilled expectations with two immaculate runs and a dashing baton change, although the Belgian pair did not give up without a fight.

Whitaker pronounced the course "about right, not big, but the ground's not perfect yet". Skelton disagreed, saying: "I think it is perfect, now." After winning his fourth jumping class at the show he was well satisfied, and will go into today's Grand Prix, in which he rides Carte Gene, brimming with confidence. Whitaker will oppose him on Virtual Village Diamond Clip, a 10-year-old Irish-bred who faces his biggest test to date. The pair have not won a relay class together since 1980 despite numerous attempts, but yesterday laid the jinx to rest.

In the Asprey International Driving Grand Prix marathon stage the national champion, Georgina Frith from Surrey, amassed 86.4 penalties with her Welsh ponies, bettered only by the Dutch driver Aart Van de Kamp with his brilliant Shetland ponies who was six points better. But the lead is still held by Frith overall in the combined dressage and marathon. The bridle came off one of Frith's ponies, but she was penalised just two points, quickly righting it. The two leaders are clear of the German Dirk Sonntag's team of bay geldings, while Britain's Ursula Hirischberg slipped back to sixth place, from fourth on Friday with her bay Welsh ponies.

The Duke of Edinburgh was eliminated at the third obstacle for missing a gate but continued apparently unaware, while Beverley Mellstrom was even more unfortunate when a wheel struck a flag pole causing her carriage to turn over. Her grey Welsh ponies galloped off into the park, dragging the carriage on its side across a field with driver and groom desperately giving chase. But the situation was not retrievable and they were eliminated.

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