Equestrianism: Whitaker aims for positive start on Welham

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At an age when most horses would be starting to lose their sparkle, John Whitaker's 17-year-old mount Virtual Village Welham seems to get better and better.

Having captured the Aachen Grand Prix among other big prizes this year, the pair seem to represent Britain's best chance of taking the individual title at The European Show Jumping Championships, which begin here today with two warm-up classes.

Whitaker and Welham have established a wonderful rapport, enabling the rider to ask awkward questions in the knowledge that he will get a willing response. This should be valuable in tomorrow's speed competition, which is the first of the three contests that decide the individual championship. Getting off to a good start is essential if the Briton is to be in with a chance of overall victory after the other two legs, which take place on Friday and Sunday.

Britain last won the individual title at Rotterdam in 1989, when John Whitaker triumphed on the great Milton and in the process defeated his younger brother, Michael. This year the elder brother may have most to fear from Hugo Simon, the Austrian rider who prevented him from winning this year's World Cup final in Gothenburg, and Ludger Beerbaum, Germany's 1992 Olympic champion.

Although the British selectors have delayed naming their team of four until after today's warm-up classes, there can be no doubt that John Whitaker will be one of the chosen quartet. The remaining places will go to three of the other four members of the squad: Geoff Billington, Di Lampard, Robert Smith and Michael Whitaker. All four have realistic claims to a place, so whoever is omitted from the team is likely to be bitterly disappointed.

In the last six years, Britain has won the team title on three occasions and finished second on the other three. They must be well fancied to regain the title, which they last won in 1989, when it is decided over the first two legs tomorrow and on Friday.

British hopes have risen since the Nations Cup in Rotterdam last weekend, where the Whitaker brothers, Lampard and Smith finished joint second with the Netherlands in this team contest which was won by the United States.

The Netherlands had been regarded as favourites - especially as the Germans are without their world champion, Franke Sloothaak, who is sidelined through injury.

Germany, so powerful when winning team and individual gold medals at last year's Olympic Games in Atlanta, are also without their individual Olympic champion, Ulrich Kirchhoff. His superb mount, Jus de Pommes, died last year after an attack of colic.

The British quartet includes three riders - Lampard, Smith and Michael Whitaker - who gained automatic selection having filled the top three places in the new series of team trials. Although the trials came in for much criticism, these three have kept their form impressively. If they go well here, it could be impossible to argue against repeating the experiment next year.