When Ludger Beerbaum opened the 10-horse jump-off with a nimble, corner- cutting round on Champion du Lys, hopes had been distinctly low for those trying to beat the German European champion. Seven had failed to get anywhere near him (some, deciding that caution was the better part of valour, did not even try) until Skelton rode in looking as though he meant business.
"This big arena suits him," Skelton said of the long-striding Hopes are High, with whom he set sail after negotiating the planks which formed the second jump-off fence. Having raced through the finish to noisy cheering, he recorded a time that was 0.67sec faster than Beerbaum.
Hopes are High had been disappointing this year until being taken to Newmarket, where it was discovered he was lacking fluid in his hocks. That deficiency was put right 10 days ago and the horse recovered his powerful jump.
"It's been a good week for me," Skelton said. "I'd felt a bit down when things were not going right, but now the horse has got back to form, and that means he's as good as any."
There had been another problem on Friday, as Hopes are High hit a nerve when knocking a pole on the back of his knee over a practice fence and was therefore unable to jump the second round of the Nations Cup. Skelton said that ice packs had been applied to get the horse ready for yesterday's contest.
Skelton's non-appearance in the second round of the Nations Cup led to controversy when he was awarded five points towards the International Championship British Team Trials rankings for jumping clear initially. This involved bending the rules in Skelton's favour - as had been done for Michael Whitaker in another complicated interpretation on Thursday.
Tim Stockdale was the principal victim of these decisions (which left Whitaker, Skelton and Robert Smith as the three who qualify for the squad of five for next month's European Championships at Hickstead) and he wanted to prove his worth in yesterday's classic.
Stockdale, last to go in the jump-off with Traxdata Wiston Bridget, wisely declined to chase the times set by Skelton and Beerbaum. Instead, he jumped a second clear round, proving that the mare has considerable scope by finishing fourth - one place and a fraction of a second behind Ireland's Edward Doyle on Wingates King Koal.
John Whitaker, who had accepted the challenge from Beerbaum, made two jump-off errors with his splendid new mount, Virtual Village Flower, to finish ninth. The elder Whitaker brother had earlier been named for the European Championship squad, leaving one rider to be chosen before nominated entries have to be made by 6 August.
Beerbaum was glad to have "set a good target" yesterday with the nine- year-old stallion Champion du Lys, who is now his probable mount when he defends his individual European title. He does not, however, expect to retain the championship. "The horse is still a bit green, they won't rate me as one of the favourites," he said.
Having criticised Hickstead after jumping in the mud here in last year's King's Cup, Beerbaum said that this week's fine weather had made all the difference. "In these circumstances, it's one of the best places in the world," he said.
He nevertheless retains misgivings about the choice of venue for the European Championships because of the ground problems that can arise from torrential rain.
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