Jump-off agony for Whitaker as van der Vleuten atones for Olympics heartache

Michael Whitaker riding Elie van de Kolmen in the Christmas Masters
Michael Whitaker riding Elie van de Kolmen in the Christmas Masters
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Michael Whitaker suffered jump-off agony as he was narrowly denied his first victory of this year’s London International Horse Show at Olympia.

Whitaker, last to go in the Christmas Masters on his exciting mare Elie van de Kolmen, clipped eight hundredths of a second off leader Maikel van der Vleuten’s time.

But a final fence knockdown meant the winner-takes-all prize of £10,500 went to Van der Vleuten, whose Masters triumph followed his brilliant Longines FEI World Cup victory 24 hours earlier.

“She sort of misunderstood what I was trying to do going into the last,” said Whitaker.

“She jumped it a bit like a water jump.

“But she really is the part, and I have some big plans for her next year.

“She has been knocking on the door at a lot of the big shows. She has got very good experience and a good attitude.

“The Masters class is a good test for the horses.

“Maybe we should just spread the money out a bit more, but if you win it then you are not going to say that!”

Van der Vleuten, riding VDL Groep Eureka, clocked 26.32 seconds in the jump-off, a stage that only he and Whitaker reached following four rounds in a seven-rider competition that saw Whitaker’s British colleagues Laura Renwick and William Funnell finish equal third.

“It was a great experience for my horse,” van der Vleuten said, of a class when riders are eliminated once they have a fence down.

“It is a horse with a lot of quality, and now it is at the age of learning to jump some bigger classes.

“I wanted to ride a fast time, and also to put some pressure on Michael.

“It is not easy to go first in a jump-off because the next rider can always look at the first one. I tried to put him under pressure to do a fast time.”

Germany’s Marco Kutscher followed up his victory in the H&M Ivy Stakes on Saturday night by landing the Levy Restaurants’ Six Bar competition in dramatic fashion.

Kutscher, riding Chamira 4, was last to go among a field of 13 that had been whittled down to six by the third jump-off round.

And after all five of his rivals – Funnell, Pius Schwizer, Lars Nieberg, John Whitaker and Guy Williams – had at least once fence down, Kutscher went clear, including conquering the final 1.90 metre obstacle.

The last fence was gradually raised from 1.55 metres in round one to 1.90m (six feet three inches) by round four. Schwizer and Nieberg shared second place, with Funnell and Whitaker finishing in equal fourth spot.

On Saturday, van der Vleuten exacted a small degree of revenge for Holland’s London 2012 gold medal jump-off agony against Great Britain by winning the Longines FEI World Cup qualifier at Olympia.

British prospect Dan Neilson – an ex-amateur boxer from County Durham whose father is a former semi-professional footballer – led the home challenge by finishing third and collecting £14,000.

World No 1 Scott Brash had to be content with sixth place in an 11-horse jump-off that also included his British colleagues Michael Whitaker and Peter Charles.

But last-to-go van der Vleuten emulated his father Eric, the 2009 Olympia World Cup winner, by landing a £31,000 winner’s purse on VDL Groep Sapphire B after clocking 37.07 seconds.

The top three riders were separated by just 12 hundredths of a second as Neilson and Varo M finished behind van der Vleuten and Belgium’s Francois Mathy Jr, riding Polinska des Isles.

Van der Vleuten had been part of the Dutch team forced to settle for silver at Greenwich Park when the British quartet of Brash, Charles, Ben Maher and Nick Skelton landed a first Olympic team title for 60 years.

But Neilson went desperately close to landing another major prize for British showjumping at a time when the sport is enjoying an unprecedented level of success, both in terms of major championship honours and world rankings domination.

“I am trying to work as hard as I can, move forward and stay at the top end of the sport,” said Neilson, who is now based in Essex.

“What Great Britain has achieved in the last few years is unbelievable, with the championship successes and Scott being world No 1 and Ben Maher world No 2.

“It is great to watch those guys, and it makes you stride forward and want to achieve what they are achieving. Varo is a naturally fast horse. I saved him for the World Cup class, and he jumped superbly. We had to be quick to have a chance with the amount of clear rounds there were.

“When I walked the course beforehand I had a good feeling because he is a really careful jumper. The times were so close, there was hardly anything in it, and I couldn’t have asked for any more from my horse.”

First round casualties among a 37-strong field included Maher and Tripple X III.

Maher collected eight faults, along with the likes of John Whitaker (Argento), Laura Renwick (Oz de Breve) and Robert Whitaker (Catwalk IV).

But the jump-off kept a capacity 8,000 crowd engrossed, as first Whitaker with Viking clocked the quickest time, then Brash and Ursula, but both riders had the penultimate fence down.

That left the door open, and it was van der Vleuten who came up trumps to claim his maiden World Cup triumph.

“I was at home watching on television when when my father won in 2009, but there is always a super atmosphere here and I knew that if I went clear in the jump-off that I could possibly beat Francois’ time,” he said. My horses will have a little break now, and then we will start again in Basle in the second week of January.”

Scotsman Brash, meanwhile, still leads the overall Longines World Cup Western European League standings.

Halfway through the race to qualify for next April’s World Cup final in Lyon, Brash has a total of 52 points, one ahead of reigning Olympic champion Steve Guerdat, with van der Vleuten third.

The H&M Ivy Stakes saw more than a third of the field jump clear, including van der Vleuten, riding VDL Groep Eureka.

French challenger Simon Delestre set the pace on Whisper, clocking 34.61 seconds, but it was a short-lived lead as Germany’s Marco Kutscher steered Cash home in 32.02 to increase the pressure on the remaining contenders. And he set too hot a pace to handle, with Michael Whitaker and Amai taking second in a time of 33.76, and Holland’s Harrie Smolders finishing third on 34.42. Van der Vleuten, meanwhile, had to be content with sixth.