Team Great Britain produced a superb back-to-back double in the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup 2015 Europe Division 1 League when following up their success at La Baule, France a week ago with another extraordinary victory at Piazza di Siena in Rome, Italy today. It was another nail-biting competition that came down to a fierce battle with the reigning Furusiyya champions from The Netherlands this time around. And, not for the first time in his long and legendary career, the result was sealed by the master craftsman John Whitaker.
It was his younger brother, 55-year-old Michael, who clinched it for his side at the French fixture seven days ago, but today Michael’s single time fault could have cost his country dearly. Because if John, who turns 60 in August, left a fence on the floor second time out, then all the glory would go to the Dutch. But instead he produced one of four double-clear rounds to ensure pole position and a standing ovation for his team from the enthusiastic Italian crowd.
Sweden lined up third behind The Netherlands while Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Qatar and Belgium filled the remaining places.
Another hero of the day today was master Italian course-designer Uliano Vezzani whose judgement and skill was tested to the limit by appalling weather conditions that seriously affected the arena surface. Thunderous rain prior to the competition made the going deep and sloppy, and he took the decision to lower rails, reduce spreads and take over a metre off the stretch of the open water in order to ensure the welfare of horses was not compromised in any way. Yet he still produced an afternoon of intense competition that went right down to the wire.
The British were already out in front on a zero score at the halfway stage after foot-perfect runs from Michael and John Whitaker, and John’s son Robert. Relative newcomer, 25-year-old Holly Gillott, hit the second element of the Longines triple combination at fence seven and both elements of the penultimate double to provide the British discount score first time out with Dougie Douglas (Ard VDL Douglas x High Roller).
The open water was the fourth fence on the track and provided few problems but the following oxer hit the floor on several occasions while the planks vertical at six required a careful approach off a sweeping left-hand turn and it was here that Dutch pathfinder and reigning World double-gold medallist Jeroen Dubbeldam made an error with Zenith (Rash R x Fuego de Prelet). However the biggest drama of the first round was provided by Italy’s Piergiorgio Bucci when, clear all the way to the final planks, his stallion, Casallo Z (Casall x Carthago Z), drifted to the right on this left-bending line and galloped past the fence. The crowd was dumb-struck as the pair were awarded a total of six faults from which their side could not recover.
The Swiss rallied superbly with three fault-free rounds second time out that included a double-clear for pathfinders Jane Richard Philips and Pablo de Virton (Andiamo x Kashmir van’t Shuttershof), but it was all too late to put them back in the game with 16 faults already on the board. And a nasty fall for Jos Verlooy and Farfelu de la Pomme (Vigo d'Arsouilles x Darco) when the mare left out a stride at the final element of the combination put paid to Belgian chances. The team from Qatar inched ahead of them to fill seventh place at the end of the day while the Spanish held their ground when adding just four faults to finish on a total of 12. And Sweden also stood firm, thanks in no small part to superb double-clears from Angelie von Essen riding Jordan ll (Air Jordan x Voltaire) and Henrik von Eckermann with Cantinero (Cento x Cash).
But it was the Dutch who chased the British all the way to the line, Dubbeldam’s second four-fault effort followed by three great clears from Maikel van der Vleuten and VDL Groep Verdi (Quidam de Revel x Landgraf) and Jur Vrieling and VDL Zirocco Blue (Mr. Blue x Voltaire) whose horses never touched a pole all day to leave them on their first-round four-fault tally.
Gillott produced a copybook second round to boost British chances, but a mistake at the very last fence for Robert Whitaker and Catwalk IV (Colman x Corleone) put the pressure on, and although Michael Whitaker and Cassionata (Cassini I x Quidam de Revel/) were also free of jumping faults they passed the 80-seconds time-allowed to collect a single time fault and suddenly it was critical. Because if John Whitaker could not stay clear then his team would have to count that single fault and would have to settle for runner-up spot with a total of five.
The crowd watched intently as he set off, last to go and with everything hanging in the balance. And Argento ensured that his rider had plenty of riding to do as he pulled his way around the course, but leaving all the timber intact to the great joy of the appreciative crowd. This was Great Britain’s ninth victory in the 83-year history of CSIO Rome, and the spectators enjoyed every moment of it.
“This is a great one to win and it was important for us to do well today because we were looking for points. Everyone rode fantastic!”, John said afterwards. And talking about the hands-on ride he experienced in both rounds with Argento he pointed out, “he’s a stallion and he’s a bit full of himself because its spring! He’s a lovely horse, not as difficult to ride as he might seem, he’s so careful at the jumps - he really wants to clear every fence and that’s a fantastic feeling”, he explained.
Holly Gillott was understandably delighted. “For my horse it wasn’t easy on the wet ground, it rained for one whole hour before we started and he didn’t like the going, he got tired and flattened at the combinations but he came back really well in the second round.”
“There were so many Whitakers on the team I was worried that we might not win, so it’s a relief!”, joked Michael Whitaker. Robert Whitaker really enjoyed the family feeling today. Asked if riding alongside Michael and John puts him under pressure he replied, “it’s less pressure actually because I’m riding with my family and it feels very different. We probably try even harder when we are all together, it’s great!”
Source: FEI press release by Louise Parkes
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