Equestrianism: Smith looking for a repeat as he closes in on Helsinki

The 26th Olympia Show Jumping Championships begin today in the elegant setting of the Grand Hall, where the first international horse show took place in 1907. Genevieve Murphy looks at some of this year's participants.

Robert Smith will be without Senator Tees Hanauer when he competes in the Olympia Show Jumping Championships, which begin their five-day run this afternoon. The 17-year-old horse, who carried Smith to victory in the Volvo World Cup qualifier at Olympia last year, is sidelined with a minor injury. Smith will therefore rely on either 10-year-old Senator Scharn or the 11-year-old stallion, For the Best, on Saturday afternoon when he attempts to repeat last year's World Cup success. Scharn won a class at Amsterdam in October but, because of various "daft little things" he has since been rested.

Smith is lying 11th (and best of the British) in the Western European League of the World Cup from which the top 18 qualify for the April final in Helsinki. He already has 35 points and another seven should be enough to ensure qualification.

The Whitaker brothers are well behind at the moment, with Michael 27th on 19pts and John 57th with a mere seven. John will choose between his two top horses, Virtual Village Welham and Grannusch, when he attempts to improve his placing on Saturday. These were the two partners he rode to be runner-up in this year's World Cup final.

As always, the World Cup contest will be a hotly competitive class, with 11 of the current top 12 riders in the world in contention. The participants will include the two great Germans, Frank Sloothaak (the world champion) and Ludger Beerbaum (holder of the European title) as well as the consistent Dutchman, Eric van der Vleuten, who is currently leading the Western European League.

Sloothaak is back in action after dislocating his right shoulder in a painful fall at Stuttgart in October.

A total of 38 riders from 11 countries will be jumping for prizes worth pounds 230,000. These include a Volvo car (worth pounds 20,000) on offer in the World Cup qualifier, a possible winner-takes-all prize of pounds 21,000 for Sunday afternoon's Vink Christmas Masters and the pounds 16,000 which goes to the winner of Monday evening's Olympia Grand Prix.

The programme also includes lighter entertainment, notably from two old favourites: the Pedigree Chum Dog Agility Stakes and the Osborne Refrigerators Shetland Pony Grand National. A new display, from the Frenchman Jean-Francois Pignon, has been hailed as an amazing example of communication between a man and his horses.

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