Equestrianism: Whitaker's absence a blow for Britain

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MICHAEL BULLMAN, the chairman of the selection committee, fears that Britain will have an "uphill struggle" at this week's Traxdata FEI European Show Jumping Championships at Hickstead now that John Whitaker has had to pull out because of injuries to his top two horses.

"John has been such a stalwart of the team, we always seem to have relied on him," Bullman said. Today he has to choose a team of four from a squad which no longer includes the elder Whitaker brother.

The chosen quartet is likely to be Nick Skelton, Michael Whitaker, Di Lampard and Robert Smith.

The first-in-last-out theory will probably apply to Geoff Billington, who was brought in on Monday to replace John Whitaker. He has had a worrying number of refusals this year with his mount, It's Otto.

The meeting begins today with a training session in the International Arena. Michael Whitaker, who still has to chose between Virtual Village Calvaro and Ashley, will wait until after he has jumped both horses before saying which of the two he would prefer to ride.

Twenty-one countries (14 of them with full teams) are due to be represented when the Championships get under way with the opening speed leg tomorrow. It will be followed by a two-round Nations Cup-type contest on Friday, when the team result will be decided, and another two rounds on Sunday for the individual final. The British Jumping Derby, normally the climax of the August meeting, will be on Saturday.

This will be the first time since 1983, when the European Championships were last held at Hickstead, that major show jumping titles have been decided in Britain. Having waited so long, it seems ironic that Britain's leading rider is not among the 65 competitors.

However Skelton, who looks the strongest British individual medal contender with Hopes are High, is not writing off the possibility of team victory in John Whitaker's absence. "We'll have to do our best and see if we can win through," he said.