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Equestrianism: Gently does it for Whitaker

JOHN WHITAKER and his fleet-footed 19-year-old partner, Virtual Village Grannusch, sped their way to an opening day victory in the Petplan Stakes at the Olympia Show Jumping Championships yesterday.

Though Whitaker said that his winning round was "not break-neck stuff" it looked fairly spectacular to those watching another superb perfor- mance from the Yorkshireman. He was, he says, able "to take a bit of a pull" coming in to the last of the 10 fences, which was on an awkward turn and was the undoing of some of his opponents - notably Robert Smith, who was last to go on Senator for the Best.

Lesley McNaught, the British-born rider who represents Switzerland, had been first to go when she raced round on Bim II. She eventually stood second in the line-up, between Whitaker and his younger brother, Michael, on eight-year-old Hilton, with whom he was third in the World Cup qualifier at Millstreet in Ireland in October.

Grannusch, who won the first two legs of this year's Volvo World Cup final in Helsinki before dropping back to ninth place in the overall placings, has kept his form remarkably well with his advancing years. Whitaker, who has a reputation for keeping elderly horses in winning form, is well aware of the chestnut gelding's limitations.

"He's such a trier, I don't like stretching him to his limits," Whitaker said after yesterday's victory. "Sometimes I think Grannusch struggles over the bigger fences, so I'll probably ride Welham in the World Cup qualifier."

Welham is only a year young-er than Grannusch and Whitaker, who knows both horses so well, wonders whether his two veteran mounts might be a little bit too well aware of their rider's way of doing things. "It's like kids, they know me so well that they're aware of little things that they can get away with," he said.

The husband and wife partnership of show jumper William Funnell and three- day event rider, Pippa, repeated their success of two years ago when winning the earlier Petplan Family Pair Relay final. William, who was first to go on Comex, had told his wife to "go for it" on his nine-year-old show jumping horse, Henkie. Pippa duly obliged.

"I thought to hell with style," Pippa said, having emulated her husband by jumping a fast clear round. They were the only pair to finish without jumping penalties for victory over Paul Barker and his second cousin, Joanna Andrews, with John Whitaker and his 18-year-old daughter, Louise, in third place.

"We tried to do too much and we both had a silly fence down," Whitaker said. He and his daughter nevertheless did better than his brother, Michael, and son, Robert, who had been threatening the leaders until dropping the teddy bear that took the pace of a baton.

Michael should have retrieved the bear but his mount, Twostep, was sidling away from it. His nephew, Robert, therefore thought it would be quicker to dismount and pick it up himself, but unfortunately this apparently smart bit of thinking led to the pair's elimination.

Petplan, who sponsored both of yesterday afternoon's show jumping contests, have announced their support for the Blenheim International Horse Trials for the next three years. The first prize for the Oxfordshire event will therefore be increased to pounds 6,000 next year.

OLYMPIA SHOW JUMPING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Petplan Stakes: 1 Virtual Village Grannusch (J Whitaker, GB) clear, 47.40sec; 2 Bim II (L McNaught, Swit) clear, 48.11; 3 Virtual Village Hilton (M Whitaker, GB ) clear, 48.59. Petplan Family Pair Relay Final: 1 Comex (W Funnell) and Henkie (P Funnell) clear, 70.17sec; 2 Kildalton Lad (P Barker) and Townhead Karibund (J Andrews) 4 faults, 72.30; 3 Virtual Village Heyman (J Whitaker) and Livingston II (L Whitaker) 8 faults, 76.28.