James Whitaker landed the biggest win of his career with the Queen Elizabeth II Cup on Calvin McDonald's Glenavadra Brilliant in a testing competition on the penultimate day of the Royal International Horse Show.
“This means everything to me, I’m speechless,” he said after his winning round.
A tricky first round saw just four of the 29 riders jump clear with many experiencing trouble at the open water, but James had no trouble on the Irish-bred Briliant who has plenty of experience in this ring, winning the 2016 Hickstead Derby with William Whitaker in the saddle and taking fifth this year as James made his Hickstead Derby debut.
They did suffer an anxious moment before going in the ring when the gelding lost a stud, but it didn’t seem to make a difference and the pair lined up with three ladies for a tense jump-off.
Event rider Pippa Funnell switch to showjumping and got the ball rolling with a clear on Billy Congo, the 17-year-old stallion she has just taken over from husband William. Alison Barton followed but four faults at an early fence dropped Roma out of contention and all eyes turned to James.
He’d already declared ‘Max’ wasn’t the quickest against the clock and hoped he jumped clear and the others had fences down.
“I was thinking of just going for a clear, but what had I got to lose,” said James, who used the Brilliant Lad 15-year-old’s stride in this big arena and also executed a daring yet crucial inside turn to a sizeable oxer to ease ahead by 1.37 sec.
Last-to-go Helen Tredwell gave him a run for his money with her home-bred Vangelis S daughter Larksong and the pair were two sec up on the clock, but the 13-year-old dropped her hind legs on the back bar of the final oxer to to cost them the win.
James – who celebrates his 21st birthday on Monday, 30 July – was also awarded the Cindy Mead memorial trophy for the best placed under 25 rider. It was his first win in the International arena.
“He loves big grass arenas like this, and he always seems to perform well here,” said James. “When I saw Pippa go I thought there’s no way I’m going to beat that! It’s unreal, a dream come true. Winning a class like this was definitely on the bucket list.”
It was almost a Whitaker double when James’ brother William came close to taking the Bunn Leisure British speed classic but he had to settle for second when Hickstead-based Shane Breen just edged ahead in the later stages.
Nineteen contended here with William with the Beach Ball 10-year-old Lammy Beach taking an early lead slicing across vertical and oxers with a daring turn to the penultimate fence. But Hickstead-based Shane Breen managed to ease ahead on the versatile Canturo 12-year-old Canya Makan to win by just 0.12 sec.
“He’s a brilliant horse for me. Hr jumped in the King George [grand prix] yesterday and I blame myself totally for having the gate down, but he enjoyed winning this,” said Shane, who had watched the early riders’ rounds.
“Guy [Williams] is a flyer and when William was two seconds faster I knew I couldn’t hang about anywhere so I used Canya’s stride. It was a good course that used the whole of the arena with nice turnbacks and lots of lines with the option to leave out strides,” he added.
Brits filled the next four places with William second followed by Nigel Coupe on the Wolkentanz 14-year-old Jubilee III. Joe Clayton eased Jane Heerbeck’s Carolus K DHI into fourth ahead of early leader Guy Williams on Thais D’La Verrerie.
Warwickshire-based American Laura Kraut headed the Bunn Leisure Salver 1.50m with Nouvelle in an incredibly tight competition where just 0.65 sec separated the top three. Fifteen of the 38 starters went through to the jump-off with Italy’s Marlon Modolo Zanotelli taking an early lead on on Isabeau de Laubry.
But Laura and the Solitair 14-year-old Nouvelle took tighter lines.
“I saw Marlon go and he’s one of the fastest riders in the world. He was so smooth and I thought I just can’t hold back,” said Laura, the partner of Olympic gold medallist Nick Skelton. “Nouvelle is just wonderful – I’ve had her for about eight years and she’s just always been riddled with bizarre injuries so she’s actually fairly low mileage.”
Late-drawn Belgium’s Wilm Vermeir slotted DM Jaqmotte into second 0.46 sec behind Laura to leave Marlon in third.
Ellen Whitaker was best Brit in fifth on Norman Oley’s Arena UK Winston on a double clear 2.39 sec off the pace. Jessie Drea on the Touchdown 13-year-old Mullaghdrin Touch The Stars and William Funnell aboard the eight-year-old Billy Diamo also provided clean rounds for seventh and ninth.
Photos © Nigel Goddard/Hickstead