MICHAEL WHITAKER and Virtual Village Ashley confirmed their good form (and, in the process, added to the confusion of the selectors) when winning yesterday's Derby Trial on the second day of the British Jumping Derby meeting.
Ashley, who also won here on Thursday, had a promising year on the international stage in 1996 as an eight-year-old. But he was less consistent last year. "Most horses run into a sticky patch and he wasn't as good for a while, but now he's really confident again," Whitaker said.
It would have been much easier for the selectors if Ashley had filled one of the top-three places on the series of British international team trials and so qualified for one of the five places in the squad for the World Equestrian Games to be held in Rome in October.
Had Ashley been at his best in the third trial, held at the New Forest and Hampshire County Show at the end of July, Whitaker would probably have qualified for the squad after winning the third (and toughest) trial here on Thursday. But the ground was wet and slippery in Hampshire and the horse, who hates such conditions, gained no points.
It has left the selectors in a horrible dilemma as to which top riders (and in-form horses) will have to be left out of the World Games.
Yesterday, Whitaker gained his fourth victory in the Derby Trial by achieving the only clear round and the fastest time in the six-horse jump-off. The Briton defeated the 23-year-old German, Christian Ahlmann, who had one jump-off error on Satan du Tremblay, and Damian Charles, who had two fences down on Romulus 16.
Peter Charles, the former European champion who rides for Ireland, is one of Damian's uncles. Another uncle, who runs the Padua Stud in the United States, bought Romulus for him to ride early this year and the partnership is clearly growing in confidence.
The Derby Trial was a qualifier for tomorrow's much richer British Jumping Derby, which carries a first prize of a pounds 20,000 Peugeot car and pounds 10,000. Michael Whitaker, who has won this annual classic on four previous occasions, will be riding Ashley in it for the first time. His elder brother, John, will also be on a first-timer when he rides nine-year-old Heyman, who had just one mistake in the opening round yesterday.
John Popely and last year's Derby winner, Bluebird, missed yesterday's jump-off with just one time fault. Popely, therefore, believes that his mare is on course for a repeat victory.
BRITISH JUMPING DERBY MEETING (Hickstead): Derby Trial: 1 Virtual Village Ashley (M Whitaker, GB) clear, 49.40sec; 2 Satan du Tremblay (C Ahlmann, Ger) 4 faults, 52.96; 3 Romulus 16 (D Charles, GB) 8 faults, 49.82.