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John Whitaker: ‘The highest riders got here to Royal Windsor, regardless of all of the crimson tape’

  • John Whitaker reflects on competitive fields at Royal Windsor Horse Show and ponders a tilt at the Derby

    ROYAL WINDSOR is one of the best shows in the calendar, and even with all the red tape from Brexit, many of the world’s best riders came – it shows what an incentive it is when you offer very good prize money.

    To help with the lengthy logistics now involved in travelling into Britain, some of the foreign riders used horse transporters this year and I hope it makes them realise it’s worth the effort.

    I had mixed fortunes at the show – it started well when my top horse Equine America Unick Du Francport was third in the big class on the first day, but then I took the wrong course in the King’s Cup which I still haven’t got over – I got a serious ribbing from all the riders the next day, asking if I had my sat-nav turned on! I put it down to old age.

    Sunday’s grand prix was big, tough and technical, but these days we walk the course thinking it’s massive then the first riders go in and jump clear.

    Bernardo Costa Cabral is a great designer, though, and faults came everywhere – although the planks at fence seven came down a lot, which is surprising because horses seem to jump planks a lot better these days than they used to; I’m not sure why. The fence came seven strides after an oxer off the corner and it was four steady strides to number eight, so maybe riders were thinking ahead to that.

    Also causing trouble was the green vertical at fence nine with a water tray behind it; it was going into the top corner where the screen was. I was surprised to see mistakes at the last double, the second-last fence – it was a bit of a faux distance after the triple bar and a lot of horses had the back bar at it.

    I was one of the many who had the planks down. When there aren’t many clears and you have one down, you go a bit quicker to chase some prize money – the four-faulters this year still won good money – but then the chances are you’ll knock another one down. That’s exactly what happened with Unick; the speed just caught us.

    When Gregory Wathelet goes clear in a jump-off, he takes a bit of beating because he’s such a fast rider. Max Kühner just didn’t quite get to him, then Daniel Bluman lost his stirrup over the second-last fence. I think that cost him the class, because you lose a bit of concentration trying to get it back in those situations, and he had the last fence down, but he was very close to Gregory’s time. But that’s the way it goes sometimes.

    So all in all, the crowd was great and I think everyone enjoyed the show. It was a shame, though, that after my nephew Jack Whitaker was forced to withdraw through injury before the show, they didn’t go down the ranking list and invite someone else to take his place. So many British riders would have jumped at the chance to compete at a five-star show on home soil, even at very short notice.

    Next stop Hamburg

    I’M off to Hamburg next week and it crossed my mind to enter my other horse Sharid in the Derby there, because he’s brave and I think that it would really suit him. Hamburg and Hickstead are great classes to be part of, the crowds come out more than any other showjumping competitions and there’s so much tradition behind them.

    The problem is, I’d have to put in so much practice with Sharid at home and I just feel that while he’s at the top of his job, there are so many regular jumping classes that he could be competitive in and hopefully win.

    People do still have specialised Derby horses, but the sport is completely different now to those days when Derbies were really popular and offered the
    best prize money, so of course you jumped your best horses in them. After two years’ absence, though, it’s great to have them back in the calendar at least.

    • What is your favourite Hickstead Derby memory? Let us know at

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 26 May

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