Whitaker in dominant form

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Equestrianismreports from Hickstead

John Whitaker continued his domination of the Silk Cut Derby meeting here when he rode Everest Welham to win yesterday's Derby Trial. He defeated the Japanese rider, Taizo Sugitani, on David Broome's former partner, Countryman.

Sugitani, 19, is jumping at his first show in England. "One of my dreams was to jump at Hickstead," he said after yesterday's stylish round. Now based in the Netherlands, where he is taught by the Italian team trainer, Henk Nooren, Sugitani is forging an effective partnership with his 16- year-old mount. "Countryman takes me around, he knows better than me," he said.

Countryman was 4.24sec slower than Welham when jumping the only other clear round of the nine-horse jump-off. Whitaker, watching from a balcony, had more to fear from Ireland's Gerry Mullins who had time in hand when Millstreet Ruby hit the final fence. Mullins therefore finished third, one place ahead Ireland's John Ledingham on Kilbaha, with whom he won the Derby here last year.

On only one occasion has the winner of the Derby Trial gone on to triumph in the Derby itself. That was in 1979 when Eddie Macken won both competitions on the legendary Boomerang. But Whitaker is not worried by such statistics as he prepares to ride Welham and Gammon in the 35th running of the Derby tomorrow.

Gammon missed yesterday's jump-off when over-running the time allowed by a mere 0.14sec for a quarter of a time fault. "I wasn't conscious about the time, I didn't think he was slow," Whitaker said. "But I wasn't that bothered, because I know both horses are in good form for the Derby."

Gammon - who won a young riders' class with Whitaker's daughter, Louise, on Thursday - is the more experienced of the two horses. "He's been round the Derby course at least six times and that helps a bit," Whitaker said. Welham - who stays with his owner, Keeley Durham, between shows - won the Irish Derby at Millstreet two weeks ago but has yet to attempt the Hickstead version. Sugitani will also be tackling the marathon course for the first time.

n Bruce Davidson's Eagle Lion, the winner of this year's Badminton Three- Day Event, is one of seven United States horses that will miss the Thirlestane Castle Horse Trials in the Scottish Borders this weekend. Recent blood tests have established that these horses, currently stabled at Soley Farm Stud, near Hungerford in Berkshire, have higher than normal antibodies to the Equine Herpes Virus 1. The US riders, trained by Captain Mark Phillips, were due to have used Thirlestane as their final trial for next month's European Open Three-Day Event Championships in Italy.