EQUESTRIANISM: Firestone finds easier route to golden pay-out

ALISON FIRESTONE was rewarded with the winner-takes-all prize of pounds 13,500 yesterday when she rode Arnica de la Barre to five clear rounds in the Kickon Masters at the Olympia Show Jumping Championships.

This is the first time that the 23-year-old American has competed in this meeting. It was also her first win during a successful European tour, which began in Stuttgart in November, and included a second place in the Amsterdam Grand Prix. "It's been great experience riding against the best in the world, it really raises your standard," she said.

Di Lampard, who had the fastest time in the fifth and final round, which was decided against the clock, saw her chance of collecting the big prize diminish when Abbervail Dream hit the second part of the double, which was the last of the five fences.

She would still have won, however, if Firestone's eight-year-old mare had made a single error. "I was very lucky with the order of go," Firestone said, having been last to jump in the final round, which meant that she could concentrate on accuracy rather than speed. Next year Firestone will be aiming for April's World Cup final in Las Vegas, before trying to secure a place in the US Olympic team.

On Saturday, John Whitaker had once again displayed his formidable talent for getting fine performances out of veteran horses when he won the World Cup qualifier on 19-year-old Virtual Village Welham. Twelve months earlier he had won the same contest on Grannusch, then also 19, with a whirlwind round against the clock, which included one alarmingly tight turn.

Welham, the first of nine into the jump-off, was equally nippy. "The course suited him, he excels at turning back into fences," Whitaker said. Having taken the shortest possible route over the twisty first four fences, Whitaker maintained a smart pace without taking any undue risks. He then had to sit and wait while others did their utmost to catch him.

"It was quite nerve-racking watching the others, but there's nothing you can do about it," Whitaker said. Two riders came uncomfortably close - Carry Huis In'T, from the Netherlands, on Iceberg, and Switzerland's Beat Mandli, on Pozitano, finishing in an identical time just 0.23sec behind Whitaker to share second place. Geoff Billington finished fifth on Virtual Village It's Otto, after one refusal when taking a short turn into the third of the jump-off fences.

The venerable Welham has jumped in no more than "eight or nine" shows this year and, according to his rider, "the system seems to suit him".

Ludger Beerbaum, the former Olympic and European champion, described Whitaker's latest victory with an aged partner as "amazing". The distinguished German rider had failed to make the World Cup jump-off when his eight- year-old, Gold Fever, whom he now regards as his No 1 horse, made a single error in the opening round.

Yesterday Beerbaum rode his older partner, the 18-year-old PS Priamos, to win the Kickon Mistletoe Stakes and so thwart the high hopes of Britain's long-time leader, Tim Stockdale on Traxdata Glenwood Springs.

Like Firestone, Beerbaum acknowledged that he had the luck of the draw in going last. "I saw Tim jump and I knew where I could make up time," Beerbaum said. "He went round the white gate to the double at fence six, so I went inside." This ploy gave him victory by a 2.57sec margin on Priamos, who has won nearly pounds 400,000 during the three and a half years he has been with Beerbaum and is due to retire soon.

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