Equestrianism: Whitaker brothers primed for Wembley class act

JOHN AND Michael Whitaker, who dominated the 1998 Horse of the Year Show with seven victories between them, will again hold a strong hand for this week's annual fixture, which begins today at Wembley Arena.

Last year Virtual Village Welham, ridden by John Whitaker, made a triumphant return after a 10-month lay-off through injury, winning all three of his contests. Now a sprightly 19-year-old, he also had time off this year after pulling a muscle above his knee last month.

Welham returned to the fray to be fifth in the Calgary Grand Prix just over three weeks ago. He has not jumped since Calgary but is such an old hand that he does not need a preparatory outing.

John Whitaker also rides Diamond Cliff and Hunter's Level. His younger brother, Michael, achieved four wins at Wembley last year, two of them with Virtual Village Twostep, who reappears this week.

The Whitaker brothers will fly out early on Saturday to compete at the rich German show in Bremen, returning to Wembley on Sunday evening in time for the closing Traxdata Grand Prix. Fellow competitors are unlikely to pity the commuters, who also include Geoff Billington and Di Lampard.

A new British Equestrian Insurance Brokers' challenge has been introduced, offering riders the chance (albeit seemingly unattainable) of collecting a bonus of pounds 50,000 for winning the Puissance on Saturday night, plus the Speed Horse of the Year and the Grand Prix on Sunday. Victory in just the Puissance and Grand Prix would be rewarded with pounds 20,000.

Rob Hoekstra, victor of this year's British Jumping Derby at Hickstead and joint winner of the Wembley Puissance last season, must have his eye on these tempting rewards. Others who could win the Puissance (and so be in line for the bonus) include Ireland's Peter Charles and the Dutchman Roelof Bril.

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