Equestrianism: Skelton saves his best till last

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NICK SKELTON had to wait until the final day of this year's Olympia Show Jumping Championships before recording his first win of the meeting, with a wonderfully polished display of speed and precise turns.

Riding 13-year-old Virtual Village Showtime, Skelton won the Euro-sport Christmas Hamper by 1.31sec, beating Ireland's Trevor Coyle on Vivaldi and Britain's Di Lampard on Equity.

It was a timely victory, since Skelton is about to be dropped from the Virtual Village team. Now looking for a new sponsor, he knows that winning is the best means to that end. He had produced a class round against the clock when riding Hopes Are High in the Traxdata World Cup qualifier on Saturday, when he achieved the fastest time only to topple a plank off the final fence.

Showtime, owned by Sue Welch and who has twice won the Horse of the Year Show Grand Prix, has been with Skelton for seven years. The mare may be slightly overshadowed nowadays by the younger Hopes Are High, but she can still produce some sparkling performances.

After his own swift round, Skelton had been particularly worried by two of his remaining opponents: John Whitaker and Belgium's Philippe le Jeune. Whitaker was eliminated when 18-year-old Virtual Village Welham he knew better than his rider. Landing over the fourth fence, the horse should have turned left. Instead he jumped the fence immediately ahead of him and that was the end of Whitaker's chance.

Le Jeune had been nipping round smartly until his mount, Valiska Forever, was caught unawares by the penultimate obstacle which was a small "bounce" - a double in which there was no room for a non-jumping stride - and he stopped there.

Beat Mandli, from Switzerland, won the earlier P&O Events Christmas Eve Six Bar on Gravur 004 - a nine-year-old he has been riding for only three weeks. "He is very careful and has a good brain," Mandli said, after jumping four clear rounds to gain his first win with the horse.

Second place was shared by Andrew Davies on Satchmo and Gerany's Rene Tebbel on Le Patron. Davies, whose yard is on Cardigan Bay in Wales, had only entered his mount at the last moment and it must have seemed like a silly idea when he had a crashing fall in the collecting ring before his first round. He nevertheless jumped three clear rounds in the arena, before having one error on his fourth appearance.

Davies used to ride Skelton's current top mount, Hopes Are High, and he was distressed when David Broome (then the owner) decided in June on a change of jockey. The 24-year-old Davies has a natural talent, which was recognised yesterday when he received the Raymond Brooks-Ward Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the rider aged 25-or-under who shows the most potential.

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