Whitaker's old knack

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The Independent Online
IN ONE of the best jump-offs witnessed here, the Traxdata World Cup qualifier proved a treat for the home crowd, with six of the nine finalists riding for Britain.

Yet again, John Whitaker proved the best. His mount, the courageous Virtual Village Grannusch, preferred to the more obvious choice, Welham, defied his age (rising 20). Whitaker's younger brother Michael had gone first on Virtual Village Ashley, and set a tough target, clear in 30.66sec.

His daring turn to fence five came off, to be emulated successfully by his brother and by the Swiss rider Beat Mandli, riding Poor Boy, but not by Britain's Geoff Billington, whose It's Otto stopped at it, or James Fisher, going well on Traxdata Renville before faulting there.

Mandli's round set the Whitakers' hearts pounding as he sped through the finish clear just 0.66sec adrift for second place. Then Nick Skelton frightened them still more, coming to the last fastest of all with Hopes Are High, only to get too close to the final plank and lower it. He finished sixth and now heads the Western European League after six competitions in the 21st World Cup series. Switzerland's Willi Melliger, on Calvaro V, and Lesley McNaught, with Dulf, jumping clean, and smoothly for fourth and fifth placings.

McNaught and Britain's Di Lampard were the only female riders of 29 starters. Both got into the jump-off with Lampard, on Abbervail Dream, jumping brilliantly but with one fence down for eighth place.

Remarkably, Whitaker has competed in about 170 world cup preliminary rounds in his career but has never won the British qualifier here.

"It took a bit of winning," he understated and praised his old horse more. "He makes it easy always looking for the next fence." The retirement of Grannusch is delayed again.

The non-stop jumping life of Whitaker could now be interrupted by the holiday for two in Barbados he wins along with pounds 12,000.

Traxdata also hand him a computer, but whether he needs it is doubtful, such is his natural brilliance at his class. It is achievement enough to produce Grannusch in peak condition.

The Finnish course designer Aki Ylanne pitched the first round exactly right. Ludger Beerbaum on PS Primos was one of several to fault at the difficult triple combination, while Franke Sloothaak and Peter Charles were other favourites dismissed in the first round.

Young fans scanning the start list for Rodrigo Pessoa's name were dismayed to find showjumping's charismatic hero missing. Pessoa was disappointed, too, but had put his horse first, deciding to save Lianos, on which he won the last world championships, for tomorrow's Grand Prix. He felt the horse did not need so big a test so soon after recent efforts.

Whitaker will wait to decide whether he jumps yesterday's winner Grannusch or Welham in the Grand Prix. In this form, he will be hard to beat on either of them.

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