Equestrianism: Whitaker junior riding high
Ellen's uncles are equestrian legends, and now she is ready to jump at her chance too
"Of course, you want them all to do well," Ellen Whitaker laughs as she ponders her place within a unique sporting dynasty. "I couldn't think of anyone better than one of my family to be second to me..."
It could be a South Yorkshire equestrian-based soap opera. The Whitakers: a far from everyday story of sporting excellence. It is a surname which transcends show jumping. John and Michael have ensured that in amassing Olympic, World and European Championship medals and, in John's case, an MBE.
And while John and Michael are, respectively, 52 and 47 and still ranked one and two in the UK, the younger generation are on the advance. It is doubtful whether any set of relations could be more mutually suppor-tive yet so fiercely determined to defeat their kin.
Ellen, who will be 22 on Wednesday, remembers her first Hickstead Derby in 2004. She had turned 18, the age at which you are first allowed to compete inthe competition, and recalls walking the course, which included a near-perpendicular 10ft 6in bank, thinking how "scary" it was.
She jumped clear on her horse Locarno 62, who was then an inexperienced eight-year-old. "I thought I'd probably won," she recalls. "I knew my uncle John was just after me, although he was on a horse he'd never ridden before. But he was clear as well. In the jump-off, I went first and ended up doing a quicker time than him, but I made a mistake and had one down. Of course, he jumped clear and he won. But if there was anyone who was going to beat me, I'd rather it was Uncle John. He's a complete legend, isn't he?"
Seek the inspirational figures in the career of the country's leading lady rider, ranked sixth overall, and she speaks of Liz Edgar, from past years, and Meredith Michaels, the world's leading lady rider now, but mostly of her uncles. As a girl, she would watch John and Michael compete at the Horse of the Year Show. "The lights would dim when they announced the winner, and then they'd be in the spotlight as they rode down the course. I used to dream that would be me one day," she says.
It is a remarkable family tree. The paterfamilias of it all was the late Donald Whitaker, Ellen's grandfather, a non-riding farmer, who had an intuitive eye for a good horse and who encouraged his four sons, who all became riders, but most notably John and Michael.
The next generation include Ellen and her cousins Robert, son of John, ranked fourth, and William, son of farming uncle Ian, who is ranked seven. Not to mention two younger brothers, Joe and Thomas, who both possess potential. It is possible the Whitakers could become the only family in history to comprise an entire Great Britain team at the Olympics. Last year's European Championships in Germany was the last opportunity for the nation to qualify for Beijing. The team featured John, Michael and Ellen, along with David McPherson, and they did so by taking bronze. That Whitaker trio, plus William, are due to compete in April's British Open Show Jumping Championships*, which features international show jumping classes, including the Puissance, where riders face the famous wall – often 7ft high.
Though she agrees that Whitaker blood has conferred its benefits, she is determined to establish her reputation on her own merits. "John and Michael have had great careers, and made a fantastic name for themselves," she says at the family home, near Barnsley. "But they worked hard to make that name. I'm going to have to do exactly the same. I can't live off what they've done."
She lives off sponsorship and prize money. Her photogenic looks have ensured that leading equestrian companies, such as the clothing manufacturer Caldene, employ her to endorse and model their products. She is articulate and gregarious and, given further success, will doubtless succeed in projecting her image beyond show jumping.
Ellen is only a half of a potential medal-winning partnership at Beijing. The rider has had the imposing bay Locarno 62 since he was five and she was 15. She feared she might lose him last year when the horse's previous co-owner (with her father Stephen) wanted to sell him. In the event, Dawn Meakin, a show-jumping enthusiast, bought the shares, which allowed the pair to continue. They have since turned down an offer of €3 million (£2.29m) for the horse. "Locarno seems to go well for me," says Ellen. "For the Olympics, I couldn't have a better horse. He's very good at handling pressure, and I think that I am as well. He's quite capable of winning gold."
Her principal motivation is medals, rather than remuneration, though she adds: "The prize money's better these days and I've got a good team of owners, people who enjoy the sport and want to invest, and sponsors. It can make you a good living. Both of my uncles are millionaires out of it. The prize money at the Olympics is not great, but they say a gold medal at the Olympics is worth a million pounds, don't they?" She smiles. "I guess that's a bit of a spur-on as well."
* Ellen, Michael, John, Robert and William will compete at the British Open Show Jumping Championships at the NEC, Birmingham, on 3-6 April. For tickets: britishopenshowjumping.com, or call the box office on 08700 100216.
Ellen is the daughter of rider and trainer Stephen Whitaker and niece of equestrian legends John Whitaker MBE and his brother Michael. Both have represented Great Britain at many Olympics. The horses John, 52, has partnered include Ryan's Son and Milton. Michael, 47, made his international debut at 16 and, at 20, became the youngest winner of the Hickstead Derby in 1980. John's son Robert and nephew William are also highly ranked, while Ellen's younger brothers Joe and Thomas are up-and-coming jumpers too.
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