April 5, 2008

Francis Whittington's reputation as one of the best cross-country riders on the British circuit was justified when he won the FEI World Cup qualifier at Burnham Market (GBR) last weekend, the only rider in a star-studded field of 39 to achieve the optimum time of 6.46.

Whittington, 30, finished an easy 9sec inside time on Sir Percival lll, and thus rose from fifth place after dressage to take the lead. Then, he held his nerve when going last in the final jumping phase, which was run in reverse order of merit on the all-weather dressage surface, to win with a fence in hand as the only rider to finish on his dressage score of 44.4.

"The horse went fantastically well today and it's amazing to beat such a class field," said Whittington, a former Pony European gold medallist and a qualified horse dentist from Sussex. "This was the best dressage test we've ever done, but we have been working hard on this all winter. I've also been practising setting him up for fences so that he doesn't waste any time."

To emphasise the quality of the competition, Ruth Edge (GBR) finished second on the 2007 Luhmuhlen winner, Two Thyme (49.6), and the reigning European silver medallists Mary King (GBR) and Call Again Cavalier were third (49.7), ahead of the 2007 Burghley winners, William Fox-Pitt (GBR) and Parkmore Ed (51). Fox-Pitt also had his former Badminton winner and 2005 European silver medallist Tamarillo back in action to finish eighth (65.5). Pippa Funnell (GBR) was fifth on Ensign (51.3), the horse who could bring her right back into the big time after finishing third at Pau last year.

Although seven nations were represented, and the prolific Belgian rider Karin Donckers had brought over three young horses, the best of whom was Rose's Merlin, 18th, it was not until seventh place that a non-British rider featured. This was Australian Olympic hopeful Paul Tapner on Inonothing (52.6).

The most experienced combination, Jeanette Brakewell (GBR) and her evergreen Over To You, who is still competing at the grand old age of 20 and is the most medalled horse in the world, were 19th with 72 penalties, a steady cross-country round and a clear show jumping.

Only seven riders faulted across country and much hinged on the optimum time. Designer Hugh Lochore admitted that it was hard to test riders of this calibre at this time of year, in what should be a warm-up competition before the big three-day events. The show jumping phase was big and in a tight arena, but horses were jumping that cleanly too.