Equestrianism: Prospects for gold: Milton keen to bow out in style: Genevieve Murphy on the old grey who may at last provide Britain with an individual Olympic triumph

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JOHN Whitaker goes to Barcelona as the leading rider in the world rankings. His Olympic mount, Henderson Milton, has won about pounds 1m, which is more prize-money than any other show jumping horse. It may seem superfluous to add that they are among the favourites for the individual gold medal, which Britain has never yet won.

You will not see any swagger from Whitaker in Barcelona, but supporters from many nations will hope that the marvellous grey horse feels like showing off. Now 15 and, perhaps, marginally past his prime, the extravagant Milton can still raise his game for a noisily appreciative audience.

Whitaker has a healthy respect for some of his rivals - including the two Dutchmen, Jos Lansink and Piet Raymakers, France's world champion Eric Navet and Germany's Franke Sloothaak - but he has no doubts about his own partner's talent. 'If Milton's on form, I'm not worried about anybody,' he said.

If he were so inclined, Whitaker could go through a whole litany of personal disappointments connected with the Olympic Games. But, since he neither bleats about his setbacks nor crows about his triumphs, the past is given only a brief acknowledgement: 'I suppose the Olympics haven't been too good for me.'

The disappointments go back to 1976 when Whitaker was told, at short notice, that Ryan's Son was required to jump in an Olympic trial at Hickstead. He had no time to get the bay gelding fit and he had a succession of refusals, which ruled him out of the Games.

In 1980, when Ryan's Son was in his prime, the British equestrian teams boycotted the Games in Moscow. Whitaker won the individual silver medal at the 'substitute' Olympics in Rotterdam, but it was not the same thing.

By 1984, the talents of Ryan's Son had begun to fade through age. He made a vital contribution to the British team's silver medal but could finish only equal 14th in the individual final.

In 1988 Milton was in his prime, but the horse's owners, Tom and Doreen Bradley, refused permission for him to compete in the Seoul Olympics, because their late daughter, Caroline, was never given the chance to compete at the Olympics. 'I knew they wouldn't change their minds, so I just accepted it,' Whitaker said, without any hint of rancour.

He was both pleased and surprised when the Bradleys announced, earlier this year, that Milton would be available for Barcelona. 'He's probably not quite as sharp as he was four years ago, but he's not lost any of his scope,' Whitaker said of the grey horse, who must be the most popular show jumper in the world.

He is also the most photogenic. When Milton won the 1991 Volvo World Cup final in Gothenburg, every Swedish newspaper had a photograph of the wonder horse on its front page.

It is not just looks, though. Milton's ability to float over fences, with an extraordinary combination of lightness and power, would be enough to make him a show jumping legend. His major victories (which include the European Championship of 1989, the World Cup finals of 1990 and 1991, plus innumerable grands prix) merely confirm his phenomenal talent.

Whitaker does have small misgivings about the expected high temperatures and humidity in Barcelona. 'The heat can affect Milton, but we have to live with it and do the best we can,' he said.

He is less concerned about the grey horse's breathing, which had been all too audible when he jumped at Hickstead last month. The stables at the Sussex course are, he said, 'very dusty'. Milton has responded to subsequent treatment aimed at clearing his lungs and windpipe.

The first important contest for Whitaker will be on Tuesday,

4 August, when Britain attempts to win the first team gold medal since 1952, when Harry Llewellyn and the legendary Foxhunter were jumping. Thanks partly to Milton's presence (so sadly missed in Seoul in 1988 when British show jumpers failed to win a medal), there are now excellent prospects for repeating that victory of 40 years ago.

Whitaker's three team-mates have yet to be chosen from the other four members of the squad: his younger brother, Michael, David Broome, Tim Grubb and Nick Skelton. The elder Whitaker, already assured of a place, believes that the continued suspense has been tough on the other four.

While it is true that his own selection in advance comes through riding a fabulous horse, Whitaker's quiet assistance from the saddle should never be overlooked.

He is the one who keeps the grey horse beautifully balanced and, because he is sympathetic rather than dominating, he allows his swanky partner the opportunity to show off. A more dominant rider might well have taken the edge off Milton's enthusiasm for jumping huge painted fences.

He is now the main hope for a first British gold medal in the individual show jumping final, which takes place on Sunday,

9 August, the closing day of the Games. If Milton is at his best, Whitaker has a golden opportunity, one that he acknowledges. 'I'm unlikely to find another horse as good as Milton, so it could be the best chance I'll ever have,' he said.

It will be the only chance for the almost pure white gelding, who looks as though he has sprung from the mythical land of Narnia. All that is needed now is a reversal of Whitaker's Olympic fortunes.

Born: 5 August, 1955. Home: Upper Cumberworth, West Yorkshire. Married: to Clare. Children: Louise, Robert and Joanne.

Started riding: pre-school, taught by mother on family farm.

First competition: eliminated for three refusals at the first fence.

Successes: 1980 team and individual silver medals at 'substitute' Olympics; 1984 Olympic team silver (both Ryan's Son); 1985 team gold and individual bronze at European Championships (Hopscotch); 1987 and 1989 European team gold and individual silver; 1990 team bronze and individual silver at World Equestrian Games; 1990 and 1991 winner of Volvo World Cup finals (all Milton).

(Photograph omitted)

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