British star Michael Whitaker hailed a “very brave and very careful” Quelbora Merze after the combination claimed a stylish feature class victory at Hickstead’s Longines Royal International Horse Show on Thursday.
Whitaker has only been riding the 11-year-old chestnut gelding since March, but they emerged victorious from a 53-strong field to take the Bunn Leisure Trophy and a winner’s purse of £5,650.
“I don’t think he has ever been in a ring like this before, but he didn’t look at anything and just went straight in,” said Nottinghamshire-based Whitaker.
“He has been building up to something like this, getting placed a few times, and it has all come right on the day. He is very brave and very careful.
“I wouldn’t have any doubt about riding him in the King George V Gold Cup on Sunday, but I am going to see how my other horses go first.”
Whitaker’s jump-off time of 37.69 seconds in the two-phase competition proved just enough to edge out Germany’s Christian Ahlmann and Caruso 472, while Surrey-based William Funnell and Billy Angelo claimed third, with Belgium’s Pieter Devos (Candy) fourth and France’s Simon Delestre (Chesall) fifth.
Jessica Mendoza, who, along with Whitaker, Ben Maher, Holly Gillott and Guy Williams, will represent Britain at Friday’s Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup, finished eighth with Spirit T.
Ireland’s Trevor Breen, meanwhile, started where he left off at Hickstead in June by landing the week’s opening international class — the Bunn Leisure Vase. Breen, winner of the Equestrian.com Hickstead Derby aboard Loughnatousa WB last month, tasted immediate success on his return to the International Arena as he guided Georgie D’Auvray EC to a comfortable victory.
A mammoth field of 82 combinations contested the one-round class, and it was Breen who came up trumps, clocking 69.26 seconds, with a tie for second spot on 70.08 between British Nations Cup rider Gillott (JB’s Hot Stuff) and Dutch challenger Harrie Smolders (Springtime), with William Whitaker and Balibu finishing fourth.
The Amlin Plus Eventers’ Challenge saw 20 event riders tackle a combination course of cross-country and showjumping fences in the main arena, and it proved to be an exciting affair with top performers like Andrew Nicholson, Gemma Tattersall, Pippa Funnell, Tina Cook, Tim Price and Laura Collett on show.
And it was former world number one Nicholson who did the business with Cillnabradden Evo, jumping clear in 124.94 seconds to edge out last-to-go Elizabeth Power and Doonaveragh O One, with Britain’s Tom McEwen (Cuarento) third and Nicholson’s fellow New Zealander Price fourth on his 2014 Luhmuhlen four-star winner Wesko.
Meanwhile, teenager Chelsea Skelton saw off older rivals to win Hickstead’s prestigious Winter Grades B & C Championship, emerging top of a 24-strong class that culminates a lengthy qualification process and regularly highlights rising equestrian talents.
Skelton, from Lincolnshire, produced an exemplary double clear with the eight-year-old Caramba — then revealed how the horse is something of a reformed character.
“He was really naughty,” she said. “He used to go up on his back legs and leave the arena. Sometimes, I still have to ride him for two hours first to stop him running off with me. We couldn’t afford to buy a really good horse, so we had to go for something that was a bit quirky. I saw him advertised and begged my mum to go and see him, and we bought him with the money she had saved up to buy a new kitchen!”
It was the first time that Skelton had competed in Hickstead’s famous International Arena, having last ridden there during the Hurstpierpoint College National Schools and Pony Club Championships a few years ago.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking, but after the first jump I just thought it’s okay, I know what I’m doing — and he does like a big arena,” added Skelton, who has just finished her A Levels. “Mum and I have come down for the whole week. It’s quite a long way from Lincolnshire, and the shopping here is amazing, so we’re using it like a mini holiday.”
Images: top, Michael Whitaker wins the Bunn Leisure Trophy, courtesy of Hickstead. Bottom, teenager Chelsea Skelton wins the Winter Grades B & C Championship, by JulianPortch.com, courtesy of Hickstead