Equestrianism: Whirlwind round has Whitaker speechless

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JOHN WHITAKER combined flair and daring with magnificent effect yesterday when he won the first leg of show jumping at the World Equestrian Games. His whirlwind round on Virtual Village Heyman means that Britain also holds the advantage for the team championship, which will be decided after a two-round contest today.

Having watched Hugo Simon go into the lead on ET, Whitaker reckoned that the Austrian's time of 84.69sec was unbeatable. He nevertheless set out to disprove his own conviction on nine-year-old Heyman, who is naturally fast and (as he showed here) has the necessary scope to jump big fences from tight turns. He finished clear in an incredible 83.11sec.

Whitaker himself was speechless as he sought to recover his breath and sang-froid afterwards, but virtually everyone else on the showground (that was bathed in sunshine at long last) was cheering and stamping in appreciation. "John told me that he intended to go for it," Ronnie Massarella, the delighted manager of the British team, said. "I don't have to tell him anything; he knows exactly what he's doing so I can leave the decisions to him."

When seconds were converted into the faults that riders take forward to today's second leg, Whitaker had just 0.79 of a fault in hand over Simon, who retained second place. Nelson Pessoa, the 62-year-old senior member of the Brazilian team, is lying third, with his son, Rodrigo, close behind in seventh place.

Di Lampard had been first to jump for the British team. She had looked to be heading for a safe and steady clear round until Abbervail Dream lowered a rail coming out of the double, which was the second from last of the 14 fences. Geoff Billington also had a rail down when It's Otto hit the eighth, an oxer, which the rider had regarded as one of the easiest fences when he walked the course.

"Normally that would have been my best friend," Billington said of this obstacle. "Otto was about a foot further away than I would have wanted him. Under normal circumstances, he would have compensated for that without any problem."

Having been faster than Lampard, Billington became the best of the British until Nick Skelton went ahead of him with a lovely clear round on Hopes are High, who cleared everything with apparent ease.

Skelton had not attempted a record-breaking time and he was delighted with his nine-year-old partner, who did everything that was asked of him. Whitaker, the last of the Britons to jump, was to put his team into the lead as a result of his amazing round.

When the best three scores were added together and converted into faults, Britain held the advantage for the world team title on 10.82 faults, with France less than four faults behind (the cost of one show jumping error) on 14.61. They are followed by the United States (16.41) and the defending champions from Germany (16.44).

Britain's only team victory in the World Championships was back in 1986, when David Broome was one of the winning quartet. Broome was also responsible for Britain's only individual world title, which he won in 1970.

Apart from settling the destination of the team title, today's two rounds will help to decide which four riders go through to Sunday's individual final, since faults will be carried forward to Saturday's final qualifier.

The driving competition, which had been under threat of cancellation, went ahead as scheduled yesterday at Pratoni del Vivaro, where the volcanic soil had absorbed Tuesday's torrential rain.

There was, however, a setback for Britain's George Bowman senior who will be driving his dressage test today. He is now without Bob, a pivotal member of his team of four cobs, who failed the veterinary inspection. The 63-year-old Cumbrian driver will now have two five-year-old cobs on his team for all three phases of the contest. Yesterday his son (also George) had the best British score to be fourth after the first day of dressage.

Results, Digest, page 31