Whitaker opts for Hickstead classic

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John Whitaker has elected to stay in this country rather than join his brother, Michael, on the British team in Rotterdam so that he can compete in the Silk Cut Derby meeting which begins today at Hickstead.

Whitaker intends to ride Everest Welham and Gammon in Sunday's Derby, which carries pounds 120,000 in prize-money (by far the richest in Britain) with pounds 40,000 going to the winner. Welham won his only previous derby - at Millstreet in Ireland 11 days ago - while Gammon has a good record in the Hickstead version, having been equal second in 1992 and equal fourth in 1993. It is 12 years since John Whitaker gained his only victory (on Ryan's Son) in this annual classic. He will again be one of the favourites on Sunday, when 38 horses tackle the marathon course of 16 fences which includes the precipitous descent from the 10ft 6in Derby Bank.

Ireland's Captain John Ledingham, who won in 1984 on Gabhran and again last year on Kilbaha, will be back to attempt a third victory. Kilbaha has been in splendid form this year, having contributed to two Nations Cup victories for Ireland (in Aachen and Dublin) and, for those who believe in the horses for courses theory, he seems to love Hickstead.

The same applies to Comex, the mount of William Funnell who was named this week as one of two reserves for the British European Championship squad. Funnell has had the Silk Cut Derby in his sights since last year's running in which Comex, another horse that relishes the wide open spaces of Hickstead, finished equal fourth.

Three of the British squad for the European Championships - Michael Whitaker, Nick Skelton and Alison Bradley - will be jumping in Rotterdam this weekend. The younger Whitaker brother has won the Silk Cut Derby four times and Skelton has won it on three occasions, but neither feel that their present horses are suited to the unique demands of Hickstead.

Despite their absence, we can anticipate a thrilling contest on Sunday. The success of the Hickstead Derby is reflected in the packed stands - and in the sponsor's continuing support. Silk Cut have recently signed a new five-year contract, which will maintain their involvement into the year 2000. Few sporting fixtures can have such a secure future.