Equestrianism: William joins ranks of Whitaker conquerors

He's only 17, but the latest member of show jumping's leading dynasty looks born to fly high over fences, writes Genevieve Murphy
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The Independent Online

William Whitaker is the latest sensation in his extensive family, though he has yet to display his burgeoning talent at senior level in a British outdoor show. That omission is due to be rectified when the 17-year-old holder of the Junior European title competes in the Royal Windsor Horse Show, which begins today in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

William will have some of his family around him - among them his uncle John and his cousin Robert, who is aiming to repeat last year's victory with Lacroix in the Grand Prix on Sunday. But Michael Whitaker, the uncle with whom he is now based, will be on a separate mission as part of the British team competing in the Super League show at La Baule in France.

Until January (the start of the year in which he celebrates his 18th birthday) William was not eligible for World Cup qualifiers and grand prix classes. Once that barrier was behind him, he grabbed the opportunity to jump the grey mare Arielle in two World Cup shows - at Bordeaux in France and Vigo in Spain - during February.

It was a huge step up the ladder for William but, whereas others of his age might well have been floundering, he took to the big time as to the manner born - just as a Whitaker should. To the delight of his uncle and fellow competitor Michael, the teenager had just one fence down in each of the two World Cup qualifiers and a double clear round for third place in the Vigo Grand Prix. There were no fanfares, but the top riders present (and there were plenty of them) must then have known that yet another Whitaker was on the warpath.

Was Michael surprised by his nephew's consistent performances? "Yes, I was in a way, but not because I had any doubts about William. It was Arielle I was worried about; I didn't know whether she was good enough. As it turned out she was fantastic, she could very easily have jumped clear in both those World Cup rounds."

William was pretty fantastic too. The 6ft 1in teenager ("they grow them bigger these days," Michael said) is a naturally talented horseman, who seems able to get a good tune out of any horse he rides.

"Horses like him," according to Michael, "because he keeps everything uncomplicated, he just gets on and rides them. His attitude is very good too. He's not fazed by anything, but he's not cocky either."

At present William's goals are simple - he hopes to compete in the Young Riders European Championships at Auvers in France in July; he would also like to ride on his first senior Nations Cup team. But his main aim is "to keep going well." He wants to be able to make a living out of the sport and (of course) he would love to ride at the Olympics when he is ready.

The Whitaker show jumping dynasty began with a Yorkshire farmer, the late Donald Whitaker, and his wife, Enid. She taught their four sons (John, Steven, Michael and Ian) to ride and now she has 13 grandchildren to keep an eye on as well. Among them are John's 24-year-old son, Robert, and Steven's 20-year-old daughter, Ellen, who are both established at senior international level. With Enid Whitaker living next door to his parents, William often looks to his grandmother for wise counsel when he is at home.

Nowadays William is lapping up the atmosphere at Michael's Nottinghamshire yard, where he and James Billington (son of Olympic rider Geoff) are stable jockeys. With 30 horses in work, the two young men have plenty of mounts and Michael is glad to have them there to help with the schooling.

For William, who has been based there since April last year, the great advantage of the present arrangement is having his uncle on hand to advise him. "Michael helps me in so many ways," he said. "It's great to have someone around who's doing the same thing as me, but at a higher level. He's been at my stage and he's learnt by his mistakes, so he can pass his knowledge on."

Ireland's Billy Twomey, who spent four years as Michael's stable jockey before he set up his own yard, was a previous recipient.

William has several favourite horses of whom Arielle is naturally one. He says that the 11-year-old Hanoverian mare is "a bit of a madam. She can be nippy in the stable and she never stands still, but she tries her heart out when she's jumping."

Another of his favourites is Michael's homebred Carnaval Path, who was his mount when he won the junior European title in the Olympic stadium at Athens last year. This nine-year-old chestnut gelding is much more laid back than the mare - but he, too, tries his heart out.

William will be jumping Arielle outside for the first time at Windsor. If she proves as good outdoors as she has been at this year's indoor shows, she will continue as William's top mount. If not, the easy-going Carnaval Path may take over that role.

The gelding was a star last year in Athens, where William had to jump-off for the junior title with Germany's Kristian Knitha. After his opponent had four faults in a fast time, three senior Whitakers (William's father, Ian, and uncles Michael and Steven) put their heads together. As Carnaval Path was only eight, they decided that William should forget about beating the time and go for the clear round that he duly delivered.

After returning from Greece with individual gold and team bronze medals, William was put in his place when another horse bucked him off and broke his arm. "I was lucky, I was out for only six or seven weeks," he said, obviously bothered about missing the jumping.

The enforced rest did, however, give him a wonderful opportunity to accept Michael's invitation to accompany him on a trip to Aachen where the uncle was competing in the World Equestrian Games. Watching the world's leading riders performing in that legendary arena proved to be an inspirational experience.

Needless to say, William was happy to get back in action, renewing his friendly rivalry with uncles and cousins. "It's friendly all right, but we all want to win," he said. Nobody should be silly enough to think that any Whitaker is lacking a combative edge.

Going clear: The Whitaker family from John and Michael to Jack and James

John and Michael

The first and third sons of the late Donald and Enid Whitaker have been stalwarts of the British team ever since winning Olympic silver medals in Los Angeles in 1984. Their two brothers, Steven and Ian, are both accomplished horsemen whose children are now making names for themselves in show jumping.

John and Clare's Family

Louise (26), Robert (24) and Joanne (19):

Robert is the third best Briton in 32nd place on the world rankings. The two ahead of him are also Whitakers - his uncle Michael (4th) and his father John (26th). Robert's elder sister, Louise, is mainly concerned with bringing on young horses.

Steven and Carol's Family

Ellen (21), Joe (19), Thomas (16) and Donald (14):

Ellen was runner-up in the 2004 British Jumping Derby. She was selected for the senior team at the 2005 European Championships, but was unable to compete because her horse was sick. Joe was a team-mate of William's at last year's Junior European Championships when they won bronze medals. Thomas won the junior show jumping title at the Horse of the Year Show last October.

Michael and Melissa's Children

Jack (5), Molly (4) and Katie (2):

They are already riding ponies and they enjoy watching their father jump. Jack, who will be six this year, is expected to ride at his first show this summer.

Ian and Alison's Family

William (17), George (14) and James (9):

William became the reigning Junior European Show Jumping Champion in Athens last year. He made an impressive debut at World Cup shows this year, jumping a double clear to finish third in the Grand Prix at Vigo. Both George and James enjoyed success with their ponies last season.

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