Whitaker poised for title

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The Independent Online

reports from Gothenburg

Michael Whitaker refuses to be daunted by the pressure of today's third and closing contest of the Volvo World Cup final. He has held the lead from his British team-mate, Nick Skelton, since Saturday night's second leg, and his first major international title is now within reach.

"I'm old and experienced enough not to worry about the pressure of being in the lead," Whitaker, who is 35, said yesterday. He is more anxious about keeping his 12-year-old partner, Everest Twostep, relaxed than worrying about his own ability to cope with the toe-curling tension that is bound to be part of today's showdown.

Whitaker took the lead after riding a cautious clear round in the jump- off. He was third in the second leg of the contest and Skelton, who had one fence down with Everest Dollar Girl in the eight-horse jump-off, ended in seventh place.

But the two Britons nevertheless moved to the top of the standings. Close behind them is the German world champion, Franke Sloothaak, who will be waiting to pounce if either makes a mistake in one of today's two rounds. Sloothaak, 13th after Friday's opening leg, advanced to third on Saturday after completing a flawless winning round in the jump-off riding the mare, San Patrignano Weihaiwej.

Whitaker's elder brother, John, won the World Cup final in 1990 and 1991 on the wonderful Milton. John is now back in 21st place, whereas Michael holds the advantage. But the younger Whitaker knows that this could slip away as easily as Eddie Macken's lead did on Saturday, when the Irishman dropped from first to tenth place. A single mistake from Twostep in either of today's two rounds would give Skelton and Sloothaak a chance of victory.

If Whitaker's mount were to err twice, three more riders could go ahead of him: last year's winner, Jos Lansink of the Netherlands, and another two Germans, Lars Nieberg and the Olympic champion, Ludger Beerbaum.

VOLVO WORLD CUP FINAL (Gothenburg) Second leg of final: 1 San Patrignano Weihaiwej (F Sloothaak, Ger) clear, 35.42sec; 2 For Pleasure (L Nieberg, Ger) clear, 37.17; 3 Everest Twostep (M Whitaker, GB) clear, 40.68. Other GB: 7 Everest Dollar Girl (N Skelton) 4 faults, 39.44; 21 Everest Grannusch (J Whitaker) 8.25 faults in 1st round; 28 It's Otto (G Billington) 16 faults in 1st round. Standings: 1 M Whitaker (GB), 0 faults; 2 N Skelton (GB), 3; 3 F Sloothaak (Ger), 3.5; 4= J Lansink (Neth), L Nieberg (Ger) 5; 6 L Beerbaum (Ger) 6.5.

Grand Prix: 1 Sonora la Silla (J Tops, Neth) clear, 36.82; 2 Everest Grannusch (J Whitaker, GB) clear, 37.18; 3 El Padrino (H Sprunger, Swi) clear, 37.29.

Skandia Cup: 1 Bugs Bunny (S Hutchison, US) clear, 27.49; 2 Cheyenne (E Hasbrouck, US) clear, 29.94; 3 Flyinge Artist (P Eriksson, Swe) clear, 32.06.