John Whitaker turns 60 in August – but you would never know it.
Further proof of his enduring quality came with a brilliant anchorman performance as Great Britain’s showjumpers got their points-scoring Furusiyya FE Nations Cup campaign off to a flying start through victory in Rome.
The selection picture is developing into a promising one for Great Britain’s new chef d’equipe Di Lampard
Riding the stallion Argento, Whitaker’s double clear – the second round being delivered under acute pressure because any mistake would have handed top spot to a powerful Dutch team – was a masterclass of precision riding.
And it confirmed beyond doubt that the mercurial Yorkshireman means business at the start of a huge 15 months for British showjumping when Rio Olympics qualification hopes will be on the line.
The selection picture is developing into a promising one for Great Britain’s new chef d’equipe Di Lampard, with riders like Whitaker, his brother Michael, world number one Scott Brash and his fellow London 2012 gold medallist Ben Maher in prime form, plus exciting young stars like Spencer Roe and Holly Gillott pushing hard.
Lampard, despite having been in the role for only a short time, has restored a feelgood factor that was noticeably absent last year, culminating in a desperately-poor World Equestrian Games when Rio qualification proved way beyond reach.
This summer’s European Championships in Aachen represent the final chance – three Olympic qualifying spots are up for grabs – and after back-to-back Nations Cup victories in La Baule and Rome, plus a second-place finish in Lummen, prospects suddenly look infinitely more encouraging.
Britain’s performance at Piazza di Siena also said everything about deep reserves of character as a team of John Whitaker, Michael Whitaker, Robert Whitaker and Holly Gillott delivered the goods on a day that saw just four double clears on going made deep by torrential rain an hour before the action started.
It meant a testing afternoon for Italian course designer Uliano Vezzani, but his sympathetic handling of the situation – rails were lowered, spreads reduced and the water jump cut in length to complement testing conditions – ensured that a thriling competition ensued.
READ MORE: Derby House Post show jumping stories
And John Whitaker, perhaps more than any other rider, dominated the course through an intuitive display of accurate jumping that showcased exactly why he has won 19 major championship medals, including an Olympic team silver at Los Angeles, which he collected before current team-mate Gillott was born!
“It was a great one to win, and it was important for us to do well because we were looking for points,” said John, after Britain claimed a ninth Nations Cup victory during the Rome show’s 83-year history.
“Argento is a stallion and he is a bit full of himself because it’s spring! He is a lovely horse, not as difficult to ride as he might seem. He is so careful at the jumps – he really wants to clear every fence – and that is a fantastic feeling.”
For Lampard, the next Nations Cup stop is St Gallen in Switzerland on June 5, when Gillott, Roe and Robert Whitaker will be joined by Staffordshire-based Joe Davison, who is the son of British dressage rider and four-time Olympian Richard Davison, and Wiltshire rider Jessica Mendoza.
“Rome was an incredible day,” Lampard said. “Everyone delivered such brilliant performances, and to win the first of the competitions in which we are chasing points puts us in an extremely good position.
“All the horses and riders have been fantastic, team spirit is superb and I really am unable to praise everyone enough, not just our horses and riders, but also our owners, grooms and support crew.”