Equestrianism: Skelton's Major benefit: Genevieve Murphy on the rider whose chances in Gothenburg rest on the result of a Wager

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The Independent Online
A SPRING weekend in Paris is a tonic for most of us, but Nick Skelton got rather more from his trip there three weeks ago. Among the benefits were his victory in the Volvo World Cup qualifier, which earned him a place at this week's final in Gothenburg, and the realisation that his winning mount, Everest Major Wager, has the scope to jump championship courses.

Until then, Skelton had regarded Major Wager as his 'best speed horse ever'. Thanks to the Paris experience, he is planning to ride the horse in the first leg of the World Cup on Friday evening, which will be decided on time over a far bigger course than those built for the average speed contest. He may also ride Major Wager in Saturday's second leg, reserving Everest Limited Edition for Monday's third and final contest.

'That course in Paris was very big, I was surprised he jumped it,' Skelton said of the German-bred horse. 'He's very careful and he's probably learnt a lot over the years, but I've never ever pushed him to his limit.'

Major Wager seemed a huge gamble when Skelton bought (and named) him six years ago after he had left Ted Edgar's yard and set up on his own. Skelton has since sold a half-share to Gary Widdowson, a scrap metal dealer who is following the fortunes of his horse with mounting enthusiasm.

Widdowson cannot, however, expect to see Major Wager competing in the European Show Jumping Championships this summer. The horse has an inexplicable aversion to the open water jumps encountered at outdoor shows, which is to his own advantage since he now gets an extended summer holiday.

Skelton, who, with the Whitaker brothers, John and Michael, has been a mainstay of Britain's championship teams for the last decade, expects to ride Limited Edition in the big European contest at Gijon in Spain. This horse belongs to Sue Welch, who owns four of the eight show jumpers in Skelton's yard.

Nowadays Skelton is more aware of the need to keep owners and sponsors happy. But, when he talks about Sue Welch, there is a warmth that goes well beyond any desire merely to keep in her good books. 'You couldn't find a better owner, she's the best there is,' he said.

Welch (the former Sue Cohen, who won the European women's title in 1960) is equally appreciative. 'I wanted Nick to ride our horses because he's one of the best in the world and I like him as a person,' she said. 'He's very competitive, which is good, but he's also nice to his horses.'

Welch was in Paris, where Skelton rode her young mare, Showtime, in international competition for the first time and had clear rounds on her in all three of the classes she contested. Welsh will be too busy to go to Gothenburg, but will be kept well informed. 'When he's abroad, he always rings up to tell us what the horses have done,' she said.

All this niceness might suggest Skelton has lost his cutting edge. But the 35-year-old from Warwickshire, whose first ambition was to be a National Hunt jockey, required no prompting to come up with some scathing comments on last Saturday's Grand National fiasco.

'It was typical of organisations,' he said. 'It doesn't matter whether it's the British Show Jumping Association or the International Equestrian Federation or the Jockey Club, they all blame everyone except themselves. If it had been a jockey that made a mistake, they'd have had him in and banned him. But those other lot never get suspended.'

Skelton is more reticent when talking of his own chances of receiving the World Cup for the first time. 'I think John Whitaker will win,' he said, but the words sounded more like a knee-jerk response than a considered opinion.

He and the Whitaker brothers will be the only Britons in Gothenburg. All three ride for the Everest Team and Skelton, who regards the Whitakers as old mates, is happy with that. 'It's much better now that we're all together, it feels good,' he said.

The comradeship will not, however, blunt Skelton's competitive spirit in Gothenburg. All three Britons have a chance of victory but, while fighting their own corner, they will not begrudge success to any other member of the team.

(Photograph omitted)