John Whitaker has not yet decided whether he will attempt to repeat last year's victory in the Peugeot Derby here with Keeley Durham's Virtual Village Welham, now a venerable 21 years of age. "I'll see how he goes on the first two days of the show and then decide," he said.
Whitaker has a well-deserved reputation for getting a fine tune from old campaigners. Last year's victory was his third in this annual classic, which makes use of the dramatically steep descent from the 10ft 6in Derby Bank. His second was achieved in 1998 with Gammon, who was then 21.
Whether Welham runs or not, Whitaker intends to ride Steps Helsinki in Sunday's Derby, which is the climax of the four-day meeting that begins this morning. The black gelding has been in the money on the two previous occasions he jumped in the big contest, finishing 10th and sixth.
Last year, Whitaker and Welham defeated Tim Stockdale and the chunky mare, Wiston Bridget, who also jumped a double clear round and was beaten only on time. Bridget, who had her first win in a puissance contest in Dublin this month, has been schooling well at home in Northamptonshire, where Stockdale has built his own replica of the Devil's Dyke at Hickstead. His version, however, is even steeper (and therefore more demanding) on the way out.
Stockdale had intended to ride Parcival in some of the other Hickstead classes, but the grey over-reached when jumping on holding ground in the Dublin Grand Prix and is consequently out of action. The rider is hoping that Parcival will be ready to jump on the British team in Rotterdam at the end of the month.
Michael Whitaker, who was given a last-minute place in the Dublin Grand Prix, also found the going a serious problem for First Samuel, who had lowered two rails before being retired after only the fourth fence. If Samuel goes well in tomorrow's Osborne Refrigerators Derby Trial, he will join his stable-companion, Prince of Wales, as a Derby contender.
The Derby winner will receive a handsome prize of a Peugeot 306 Cabriolet and £10,000. Should Germany's Franke Sloothaak win on Landdame, he will collect an additional bonus of £50,000 for which he became eligible when winning the Hamburg Derby on the same horse. The strong overseas contingent also includes Ireland's Kevin Babington and Candice King of the United States, who won the Grand Prix and Queen's Cup respectively at the last Hickstead meeting.Reuse content