Ledingham leads charge

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The Independent Online

Captain John Ledingham aims to win the Silk Cut Derby for the third time in succession (and the fourth overall) when he rides Kilbaha in this annual classic at Hickstead on Sunday. The contest carries a record British first prize of pounds 40,000, and is the climax of the four-day meeting that starts this morning.

Ledingham had intended to ride Kilbaha as part of the Irish Olympic team in Atlanta, but the gelding had a fever on the day that the horses were to fly to the United States, and he had to be left behind. Having missed the Games, the 13-year-old should strip a fresh horse for Hickstead.

Three riders have won the Hickstead Derby on four occasions: Harvey Smith (whose famous V-sign was made after his 1971 triumph), Ireland's Eddie Macken (who gained four wins in a row on the great Boomerang) and Michael Whitaker (who had three in succession on Monsanta).

Whitaker will be the only one of the trio in possible contention for a record fifth victory. He rides two stallions, Elton and James Kernan's Touchdown, and is waiting to see how they go. Elton was placed in three classes in Dublin last week, but Whitaker has not yet competed with Touchdown. He brought the stallion back from Dublin to ride while Kernan is recovering from a broken arm.

Nick Skelton, whose three consecutive Silk Cut Derby victories were initiated in 1987, is likely to be the home favourite. Skelton has missed the last two derbies because he was without a suitable mount for the Hickstead course, but he believes that the mare Cathleen should be a worthy ride.

"Some horses take to Hickstead, and Cathleen is one of them," Skelton said. "She's very brave and scopey, she can jump big fences with ease and nothing spooks her." The mare proved that in winning the King George V Gold Cup on the Sussex course last month, so has earned the chance to tackle the ultimate Hickstead challenge.

John Whitaker will be at Valkenswaard in the Netherlands, looking for even richer pickings, while the Hickstead meeting is in progress. Having won the Pulsar Grand Prix in Monterrey last year, he will earn a pounds 390,000 bonus if he wins the same contest at the Dutch venue.