EQUESTRIANISM: Opening events go to Whitakers as family keep up the pressure

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The Independent Online
JOHN AND Michael Whitaker repeated last year's successes when winning the first two contests of the Olympia Show Jumping Championships here yesterday, confirming the family name as the most effective in British show jumping.

John initiated the Whitaker double with 13-year-old Virtual Village Randi, winner of the opening Christmas Candle Stakes. The 13-year-old stallion had been ridden by Whitaker's 16-year-old son, Robert, when winning a team gold medal at this year's Junior European Championships.

"They suit each other, Robert rides him very well," Whitaker said. "He thinks Randi's his horse now." The father was, however, allowed to rejoin his old partner and they were quickly in accord again, defeating Switzerland's Willi Melliger on BB Nithard by 2.5sec. Robert Smith was 0.3sec further back to fill third place on Senator Tees Hanauer.

Michael Whitaker followed suit with a whirlwind round on Virtual Village Twostep, who is capable of winning at Grand Prix level but has lost some of his appetite for attacking the bigger tracks. Yesterday's course, big enough for this speed contest, suited the 16-year-old. His clear round in 50.67sec gave Whitaker victory over Di Lampard on Equity and the Dutchwoman Carry Huis In'T Veld on Cupido.

Michael had also won this class last year with Twostep, whereas John's opening day success was achieved with Grannusch, who went on to win the World Cup qualifier here at the age of 19. The venerable horse was retired after this year's World Cup final in Gothenburg. "Grannusch was finding it harder, the big courses were beginning to stretch him a bit," John said.

Today the elder Whitaker brother will ride the 19-year-old Welham when he attempts to get past the new pre-qualifying contest for the World Cup class for the first time this winter season, having failed in Berlin and Amsterdam. If this goal is achieved, Whitaker's aim on Saturday will be to gain the first of the World Cup points he needs to qualify for April's final in Las Vegas.

Two of John Whitaker's top horses, Flower and Heyman, have been sidelined this year. The mare Flower had a hairline fracture in her off-hind fetlock, which took some time to find. Heyman had a problem with his nervous system, which led to him "walking round in circles and banging into walls". Both are expected to be back next year.

Michael Whitaker's mount in today's "pre-qualifier" will be the eight- year-old gelding Prince of Wales, one of the most exciting British prospects to emerge in recent years. Though he admits to some anxiety about doing too much too soon with this talented young horse, Whitaker is confident that Prince of Wales can cope.

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