Equestrianism: Britain set for close finish

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BRITISH hopes of regaining the European individual show jumping title here today, last claimed by John Whitaker on Everest Milton in 1989, lie with his brother Michael who is poised to strike with Midnight Madness.

In as tight a finale as there has ever been, Whitaker is placed third, only 0.75 points behind the leader, Willi Melliger, of Switzerland, on Quinta C, while Nick Skelton is another fraction adrift on Dollar Girl.

Although Britain were disappointed with winning silver after Switzerland snatched the gold medal on Friday, Whitaker and Skelton are determined to get it right today.

With less than four points (the costly price of an error in the two- round climax) covering the top nine competitors, the European equestrian summit looks set for a blanket finish. Even John Whitaker, down in 10th on Everest Gammon but under two fences from Melliger, could spring out from the wings as France's defending champion, Eric Navet, on his stallion Waiti Quito de Baussy, did on the second day two years ago in La Baule.

The Frenchman is there again, dangerously close in seventh, dogging the steps of the veteran Austrian Hugo Simon and his powerful grey mare Apricot.

At 33, Michael Whitaker has many campaigns to his credit and a host of grands prix but he has yet to win the title his prodigious talent deserves. The closest he has come to emerging from his brother's shadow was at the European Championship in Rotterdam four years ago when he and Monsanta led the field into the final leg, only to lose the advantage with a mistake in the closing seconds.

Midnight Madness is a class ahead of Monsanta and has scope to burn. Bred in the Netherlands, he was in Canada when Whitaker discovered him in 1991, but it was another six months before the carpet king Sir Phil Harris could actually buy the horse when the Canadian syndicate went into liquidation. The paperwork took even longer so that Midnight Madness joined Whitaker's stable 15 months ago, too late to be eligible for the Olympics.

'That was a blessing in disguise,' Whitaker reflects now. 'I'm still getting to know him and he was not nearly ready for that kind of test.'

In just over a year, the partnership have amassed some pounds 150,000 with inspired performances like the double clear round to help Britain win the Nations Cup in May at Hickstead, where they went on to take the Home Pride British Grand Prix. Later they were second in the gruelling Aachen Grand Prix.

However a chink in Midnight Madness's armour is that, as Whitaker knows to his cost, he can throw his head up and trail his hind legs if let loose on a long stride. This happened in the first round of the team championship on Friday when they caught the planks which were set at a difficult distance from the water jump.

But Whitaker proved his worth when he tackled the course for the second time, and carefully coaxed Midnight Madness to put in the seventh stride and clear the bogy fence. David Broome has described him as 'the best ring rider in the world'.

This is only a European championship, but the opposition is of such quality that it might as well come from the rest of the world and all the contestants are spoiling for the fight today. Whitaker's strength is that he never knows when he is beaten.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS (Gijon, Sp): Individual placings (after second leg): 1 Quinta C (W Melliger, Swit) 4.58; 2 Miss San Patrignano (M Robert, Fr) 4.91; 3 Everest Midnight Madness (M Whitaker, GB) 5.33; 4 Dexter (R Tebbel, Ger) 5.90; 5 Everest Dollar Girl (N Skelton, GB) 5.96; 6 Apricot (H Simon, Aut) 6.00; 7 Waiti Quito de Baussy (E Navet, Fr) 7.55; 8 Lugana (S Lauber, Swit) 8.18; 9 Pirol (L McNaught-Maendli, Swit) 8.27; 10 Everest Gammon (J Whitaker, GB) 9.86