Whitaker trusts in venerable Welham

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The Independent Online

John Whitaker will be hoping to extend Virtual Village Welham's remarkable record when he rides the 20-year-old gelding in the World Cup qualifier here in the Netherlands, where the four-day jumping and dressage meeting begins today.

Welham has contested three qualifiers (at Olympia, Bordeaux and Bologna) during the series and has won them all. John Whitaker's already legendary flair for conjuring wonderful performances from older horses could be further enhanced.

In deference to the horse's age, Whitaker has no intention of riding Welham at either the World Cup final in Las Vegas or the Olympic Games in Sydney. He will, however, be making use of his qualification for Las Vegas, where he intends to partner the Russian-bred Steps Helsinki.

The other three Britons competing at the Dutch show - Robert Smith, Geoff Billington and Michael Whitaker - are still anxious to gain World Cup points. Smith, currently in 18th place on 37 points, probably only needs a few more to get into the final. Billington (21st on 33pts) and Michael Whitaker (30th on 23) will need a good placing here or in Gothenburg in two weeks' time, if they are to join the elder Whitaker brother in Las Vegas.

Smith has earned most of his points with the huge, French-bred Senator Athos du Vallot, whom he acquired at the end of last year and now owns jointly with Peter Rust. "He's a big jumper and very careful," Smith said of the 12-year-old, who stands about 18 hands high.

Earlier this month, Athos finished a close second in the Dortmund World Cup qualifier, thus underlining the growing reputation of the horse who looks as though he could be a strong contender for the Olympic team. Assuming that he qualifies, Smith will ride Athos in the Las Vegas final next month.