Equestrianism: Whitaker enjoying purple patch

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The Independent Online
Nick Skelton kept the Virtual steamroller on course last night when he rode four marvellous clear rounds to collect the winner-takes-all prize of pounds 11,500 in the Vink Christmas Masters at the Olympia Show Jumping Championships.

It was the fifth victory of the meeting for the new Virtual Village team of four purple-jacketed riders: Skelton, the Whitaker brothers and Geoff Billington, whose combined sponsorship deal is worth more than pounds 1m. Skelton, who had won with Quick Star on Wednesday, secured last night's prize with Virtual Village Zalza whom he has ridden for only six weeks.

The prize for the Masters had started at pounds 4,000 and went up by pounds 500 each time a horse jumped clear over the five fences. The size of the obstacles increased and they were of Olympic proportions when Skelton jumped his fourth clear round.

"I never normally ask anything to jump that high, at home or anywhere else, but that horse felt as if he could have gone on all night," Skelton said of the eye-catching chestnut gelding, who was formerly ridden by a Dutch girl. Still only nine years of age, the German-bred Zalza looks to have a wonderful future.

The Dutchman Bert Romp on Burg's Samantha and James Fisher on Pinon Voici were the only others to reach the third jump-off in the Masters, but they dropped out with mistakes at the final double, leaving Skelton with the plum prize. Fisher, who has been in splendid form here, had won the afternoon's Beeton Rumford Christmas Pudding Stakes on the eight-year-old Renville.

Olympia, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has a total of 19 sponsors and the show (by far the best of the British indoor fixtures) goes from strength to strength. By contrast Hickstead, where the major outdoor shows are held, has suffered a major setback with the news that Silk Cut will no longer be sponsoring the Derby meeting.

This year BBC television transmitted six hours and 20 minutes of the action from Hickstead, with the Silk Cut Derby as its principal attraction. It is hoped that lottery money or a new sponsor will plug the gap left by the departing company, whose contribution included pounds 135,000 in prize- money for the Derby alone.

Joanna Jackson, winner of three gold medals at this year's Paralympic Games, received the British Equestrian Writers' Trophy, having been voted equestrian personality of the year. She was a member of the victorious British equestrian team in Atlanta as well as winning the two individual contests in her grade.

Jackson, a single-arm amputee, is helping to run the village post office at Cullompton in Devon for her mother and grandfather, who are both ill.

OLYMPIA SHOW JUMPING CHAMPIONSHIPS: P & O Events Christmas Cracker Accumulator: 1 Virtual Village Welham (J Whitaker, GB) 36pts, 41.49sec; 2 Roundstreet Charlie (J Renwick, GB) 36, 46.41; 3 Dylano 006 (L McNaught-Mandli, Swit) 36, 47.98. Beeton Rumford Christmas Pudding Stakes: 1 Renville (J Fisher, GB) clear, 48.10; 2 Comex (W Funnell, GB) clear, 50.73; 3 Loro Piana Bianca d'Amory (R Pessoa, Br) clear, 51.78. Eurosport Mistletoe Take Your Own Line: 1 Virtual Village Solitaire (G Billington, GB) 27.03sec; 2 S P Nikita (F Sloothaak, Ger) 27.72; 3 Alfresco Lad (P Charles, Irl) 38.32. The Vink Christmas Masters: 1 N Skelton (Virtual Village Zalza); 2 Burg's Samantha (B Romp, Neth); 3 Pinon Voice (J Fisher, GB).

Awards list, Digest, below