Equestrianism: Whitaker is undone by late errors

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John Whitaker's horses had an unconventional introduction to the showground here, which is part of Europe's largest centre for the treatment of drug addiction, when their lorry became stuck. Whitaker's groom had attempted to drive it through the wrong entrance and it took about an hour before the vehicle could be dislodged.

This is Whitaker's first visit to this annual show, which is run by the community of San Patrignano, on the 260 hectares of land on a sunny hillside between Rimini and San Marino. Far from being a rustic country show, this is a wonderful facility with a lovely main arena and all the well-appointed amenities that go with it. The show is seen as a celebration for the whole community of 1800, which includes the helpers as well as those who are struggling to overcome drug addiction.

Whitaker's horses had come on from the Swiss show at Neuendorf, which is run by Willi Melliger, a regular competitor here having competed on five previous occasions. This time Melliger opened with a convincing win in the Aon Prix, a competition for young horses, on seven-year-old Caliente II.

Whitaker, who had jumped a pleasing round until hitting the last two fences on the grey mare Oguicky - formerly ridden at national shows in England by his daughter, Louise - to finish down the line in 23rd place.

"She's already had two foals, so she's a bit behind for a seven-year-old," Whitaker said of Oguicky, who is owned by François Leisier, of Belgium. Thanks to his reputation for getting a good tune out of any mount, the Yorkshireman is frequently sent horses from abroad. "About 90 per cent of the horses in our yard have foreign owners," he said. These include his other two mounts here: Lord Z, who belongs to a German, and the Swiss-owned Cartier.

Horses are considered an essential part of the rehabilitation of drug addicts at this centre, which, according to the Community Chairman, Andrea Muccioli, means "helping people to become free human beings." They have a stud farm with 130 horses as well as the annual show, in which everybody participates - including former members of the community who come back to lend a hand. Last year the community received a much prized accolade when the centre was chosen as venue for the 1995 European Championships. This weekend's fixture will therefore serve as an early dress rehearsal for the big event in two years time.

"All animals, but horses in particular because of their sensitivity, provide a way for people who are suffering from drug addiction to communicate," Muccioli said.

In the 25 years since it was started by his father, the late Vincenzo Muccioli, the centre is able to claim that "more than 10,000 people, who were considered social wrecks, have left behind any kind of addiction." New skills have also been learnt at the stud farm, where young people have trained as farriers, grooms, veterinary technicians and experts in nutrition.

Above all, "horses are experienced as friends and companions, which has a deeply therapeutic value," Muccioli said. Because of its reputation, applications to join the community are far in excess of the places available. "We have one main admission criterion," according to Muccioli, "we have to be convinced that the applicant has a will to recover and to grow up as a new person."

International Challenge of San Patrignano (near Rimini, It): Prix Aon (young horse competition): 1 Caliente II (W Melliger, It) clear, 55.91sec; 2 Mandalian (R Cristofoletti, It) clear, 57.23; 3 Ivoire du Rouet (F Mathy, Bel) clear, 57.31.

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