Michael Whitaker makes winning comeback from suspension

November 9, 2009

British showjumper Michael Whitaker stormed back from a four-month suspension to win the fourth leg of the 2009/2010 Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping series in Verona, Italy yesterday, where the world's top riders were faced with the toughest track of the season so far.

Second to go in the five-horse jump-off the 49-year-old veteran stamped his authority all over the result with a fantastic run from Insul Tech Amai. Germany's Gilbert Bockmann slotted into runner-up spot with another talented nine year old, No Father's Girl, and reigning European Champion, Kevin Staut from France, finished third with Silvana.

Michael Whitaker, winner of yesterday's Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping qualifier at Verona, Italy is presented with his prize by Gianricardo Marini, Managing Director of Rolex Italy. © Fieracavalli/Stefano Grasso.
In June Whitaker's stallion, Tackeray, tested positive to traces of altrenogest, a synthetic hormone. It is found in the product Regumate, which can be given legally to mares. It is used to modify estrous-related behaviours that interfere with performance. Whitaker said at the time that there was a mix-up with a feed that was meant for his top mare, Portofino.

Putting all that behind him, Whitaker was in flying form throughout the Italian fixture. He was second on Thursday with Portofino who belied her 15 years with a spring-heeled performance and second again yesterday evening with Amai. Left with the decision about which of the two to take in today's tough class he said he decided on Amai "because Portofino has shorter legs than Amai, so he can go faster!".

The course, created by Conrad Holmfeld and built by Frank Rothenberger, was hugely testing. Riders were asked to shorten and lengthen strides all the way around the 13-fence track which was big and wide and exceptionally demanding. So much so in fact that six retired in round one while Italy's Francesca Capponi was eliminated with Stallone. The water-tray under the oxer at fence three was framed by greenery and many horses gave spooky, suspicious jumps here which threw them off their much-needed concentration. There were plenty more problems further on the track but the trickiest of all was the short one-stride effort required on jumping into the triple combination and then the long reach for the second element. And, as if that wasn't enough, there was another difficult four-stride distance to the final oxer.

The most frustrated men of the day were World No. 1 Marcus Ehning from Germany and newly-crowed European team gold medallist Pius Schwizer of Switzerland who, riding Leconte and Carlina respectively, both cleared all the fences only to pick up a single time penalty.

Just five survived to go against the clock and Bockmann and the interestingly named No Father's Girl first up, setting the target with a clear round in 38.14 seconds. (Bockmann said: "there was no stallion name on her passport so that's how she got her name!")

But Whitaker has been showing fantastic form since returning to action with a fourth-place finish in the World Cup at Syracuse just a week ago and as he set off with Amai it was clear he meant business. Storming around the track he was up on the clock coming to the last and raced through the finish in 37.49 seconds to take the lead.

The Italian crowd went wild with excitement as their own man, European team silver medallist Natale Chiaudani, was next into the ring with SNAI Seldana Di Campalto, but there were groans of dismay as the mare hit the vertical three from home and then both elements of the penultimate double for 12 faults. Staut's lovely grey mare Silvana was winner of the Grand Prix at Donaueschingen in September but she also clipped the same vertical as Chiaudani's ride and when last man into the ring, Holland's Eric Van der Vleuten, collected eight faults with VDL Groep Tomboy, then Whitaker secured his first-ever Rolex watch.

"I won a couple of World Cup qualifiers in North America but I've never won a Rolex before so I'm very happy about this," Whitaker said, brandishing his new time-piece afterwards.

"The course today was very difficult, a lot of tricky lines and big fences, in particular the combination at the end was asking a lot but it went well for us anyway!" he pointed out.

Talking about Amai, Whitaker said the nine year old Belgian-bred has been with him for three years now. "I jumped him in the World Cup here last year and we had just one down, but (on Saturday) he was second and today (Sunday) he gave me a great feeling - he is a really fast horse." Whitaker's next port of call is Toronto, Canada next week and he hopes to return to the Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Western European circuit at Stuttgart, Germany where the next leg of the 2009/2010 season takes place in two weeks' time.