Equestrianism: Durham's dedication means all's well with Welham

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The Independent Online
Keeley Durham's Virtual Village Welham was named as the Duphar Top Horse at yesterday's Animal Health Trust's Awards lunch in London.

Genevieve Murphy finds out how John Whitaker first came to ride Welham, and the part that Durham now plays in her horse's career.

The origins of John Whitaker's wonderful partnership with Virtual Village Welham, now 17 years of age, can be traced back to 1989 through a chance remark made during The Horse of the Year Show at Wembley.

This was the year that Keeley Durham, the owner of Welham, rode her horse into second place in the Newcomers Championship. A few days later, having just watched John Whitaker win the Masters on the great Milton, she was asked what she would do with Welham if she felt unable to do him justice herself. "I'd ask John to ride him," she said without hesitation.

It was to be some years before this embryonic plan was put into action. Durham was still riding Welham herself when she won the Oakley 21 Championship on him at Wembley in 1991 and, a year later, when she was part of the winning British team in the Young Riders' European Championships.

By then her own convictions regarding Welham's talents were being reinforced by those who wanted to buy him - among them Ronnie Massarella, manager of the senior Great Britain team. Durham, however, had no intention of parting with her much-loved horse.

When Whitaker was eventually offered the ride in 1994, it was on the understanding that Welham would always return to his own Nottinghamshire stable between shows and that Durham would accompany him everywhere. Since he is not the best of travellers, she normally drives him herself in her own horsebox.

Although it appeared that Durham would be taking a back seat, she was to become a familiar figure at the ringside from the day in December 1994 when Whitaker rode Welham to victory at Olympia, which was his first major show with the horse. Keeley's gestures of uninhibited delight have been recorded on television - as have those of her mother, Jennifer, who nowadays tries to anchor herself to a rail or seat to avoid leaping up and down quite so conspicuously.

There have been plenty of reasons for leaping around this year. Welham won the Volvo World Cup qualifier in Paris with one of the most audacious short-cuts ever seen; he jumped clear in all four of his rounds in the World Cup Final when Whitaker was runner-up; he was victorious in the Aachen Grand Prix in Germany and the King's Cup at Hickstead.

In the arena, Welham gives a ready response to any difficult question Whitaker might ask of him, but at home in Nottinghamshire he is the one who calls the tune. He enjoys going out in the field each day and will not allow himself to be caught until he is ready to return to his stable, where he pulls expressive faces to let everyone know how he is feeling.

"Keeley and I love having him at home," Jennifer Durham said. "Sometimes I think that we shouldn't have allowed ourselves to get quite so attached to him, but it's too late to do anything about it now."

ANIMAL HEALTH TRUST AWARDS: Duphar Top Horse: Virtual Village Welham. Horse and Hound Equestrian Personality of the Year: W Fox-Pitt. Duvaxyn Sporting Award: F Dettori. Voluntary Service Award: Home of Rest for Horses. AHT Special Award: The Queen Mother. Outstanding Scientific Achievement: P Taylor.