Equestrianism: Blonde ambition: Whitaker poised to make history and extend dynasty in style

The latest in a distinguished show jumping line could give a vital boost to the sport's image, writes Genevieve Murphy
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The Independent Online

A few eyebrows are certain to be raised by the news that Ellen Whitaker, aged only 19, intends to try to get into the British team for this year's senior European Show Jumping Championships. Some are bound to ask whether the Young Riders European Championships might not have been a more appropriate target. Even John and Michael Whitaker (two of her three paternal uncles) had to wait until they were 25 and 24 respectively before they jumped for the senior team.

Derek Ricketts, the performance manager of the British team, is nevertheless treating the claims of the teenager seriously. "She's a very capable young lady with a very good horse," he said, referring to Ellen and the nine-year-old stallion, Locarno. Ricketts has chosen the pair for the first Super League show of the year, which begins today at La Baule in France - at a time when most British followers of equestrian sport will be focused on the Badminton Horse Trials.

If they go well in La Baule, Whitaker will have further chances to prove her worth at the next two Super League fixtures - in Rome at the end of this month and St Gallen in early June, and her performances will be a major factor in selection. If she were then chosen for the Europeans, to be held in Italy from 21 to 24 July, she would be a sensation as Britain's youngest-ever rider at a senior championship.

Whitaker had been impressing the cognoscenti for many years, first on ponies and then in her early days on horses, before she demonstrated her talents to a wider audience by finishing third in the 2001 Speed Derby at Hickstead. This qualified her for the Derby itself but, at 15, she was too young to compete in it. A subsequent trawl through the rule book to check on minimum ages revealed that she had also been too young to jump in the Speed Derby, so she was obliged to return the prize-money. She was third again in 2003, this time retaining her prize.

Having celebrated her 18th birthday on 5 March, 2004, she was eligible for last year's Derby - but her father, Steven Whitaker (who is also her trainer) was against her competing. "I really wanted to have a go, but Dad kept saying it was too dangerous," Ellen explained.

Eventually her father gave in, but he endured rather than enjoyed her round. "It was terrifying for me," he said with feeling. For the rest of us in the packed stands it was a revelation. Here was an attractive and stylish young woman jumping clear in her first Derby with all the assurance of an old hand. The big crowd, which included her three younger brothers, wanted her to win - but her uncle John, the only other rider to reach the jump-off, had other ideas.

After she had a fence down, he jumped a slower clear round on Buddy Bunn for victory. "You have to do your best, but it was a shame she had to be beaten," he said.

Ellen was to retaliate at Olympia later that year when she won a speed contest, with John in second place. In answer to the observation that he had not done the dirty on his niece this time, he was quick to respond: "No, but it wasn't for want of trying." Needless to say, Ellen would not wish it any other way.

These have been exciting times for Ellen's grandmother, Enid Whitaker, who can claim responsibility for initiating the Whitaker show jumping dynasty when she taught her four sons (John, Steven, Michael and Ian) to ride. They have given her 13 grandchildren, all of them at different stages in their riding careers - with Ellen and her elder cousin Robert (22-year-old son of John) already having established themselves at senior international level.

Although she never looks flustered these days, Ellen has not forgotten the time when nerves proved to be her undoing in a competition at Towerlands in Essex. She was 13 and preparing to jump another round of a contest in which she was sharing the lead with her cousin, Robert, when she felt so ill that she was convinced she needed to see a doctor. Her parents reckoned she was suffering from nerves and they were proved right when, after fluffing completely at the end of the course, she made a swift recovery. "I thought if nerves can do that to you, I'm never going to let it happen again," Ellen said. Nowadays she is so focused on the job in hand she has no room for nerves.

Her confidence is also boosted by her faith in Locarno, who was bought by her father at the Paul Schockemöhle sales in Germany. He was a difficult five-year-old stallion at the time and he was called a variety of names, most of them uncomplimentary, when he first arrived at Steven's yard of Whitaker Sport Horses near Barnsley in Yorkshire. Now he is known fondly as Larry the Lamb.

"He's gentle and very quiet now. He's Mum's favourite and mine," Ellen said. "He's also a fantastic horse to ride because he gives me such a safe feeling. I know he can jump more or less anything."

Whitaker's burgeoning reputation took another big step forward this year on the Florida circuit, where she won three classes on Kanselier and two on Collector. More importantly, she held her own against all the top American riders by finishing third in the Grand Prix at Wellington and second (beaten only by her uncle Michael) in the Tampa World Cup qualifier, on both occasions with Locarno. It was then that she dared to think about trying for a place in the European Championship team.

If she does achieve her target, it could be the best thing that has happened to British show jumping for many years. There is nothing like a pretty young woman, with long blond hair and an elegant figure, to rekindle public interest in a sport that has been slipping downhill.