Equestrianism: Skelton rides clear on his way to Athens

Nick Skelton, with the Olympic Games on the horizon, rode Russel to victory in the Longines British Grand Prix at Hickstead yesterday, and celebrated his 60th international grand prix success in the process.

Nick Skelton, with the Olympic Games on the horizon, rode Russel to victory in the Longines British Grand Prix at Hickstead yesterday, and celebrated his 60th international grand prix success in the process.

Lisa Hales's stallion Russel jumped one of 12 initial clear rounds from the 37 starters. He then had the fastest of five jump-off clears to deny fellow Briton Mark Armstrong on Elise, by 1.81sec. Peter Geerink of the Netherlands finished third riding another stallion, Norit Larino.

America's John French, on Fabriana, and Ireland's Marie Burke, riding Chippison, also jumped clear, but slower, for fourth and fifth places.

Russel was not fully concentrating when he deposited Skelton on the ground in the Nations' Cup first round on Friday. But they rose to the challenge magnificently in the second round with a clear that clinched an improbable victory for Britain.

Skelton values the nine-year-old highly. "He has every-thing you want in a top-class horse: scope, power and speed. He's cool-headed too, just needs more experience.''

His Olympic horse, Arko III, currently recovering from a cough, should be ready to jump in Dublin in two weeks' time, before travelling to Athens. "I would not swap him for any other horse jumping,'' Skelton said. However, Russel is "perhaps a year behind'', he explained. He has only jumped in Hickstead's main arena three times in his career, but today contests the valuable King George V Gold Cup.

The rider, now 46, but looking fit and youthful, has made a remarkable comeback since retiring with a severe neck injury in 2000, and Athens remains his main goal. Despite a silver medal at the alternative (to Moscow) Olympics in 1980, and World and European individual bronze medals also in the Eighties, his chances of Olympic success look better than ever. In Arko, he believes he has the horse, but in himself there is a steely desire to fulfil this great ambition.

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