6 May 2001

A veteran of 25 seasons and an 18-year-old team up to represent Britain in the Nations Cup

The tide was going out at La Baule in north-west France yesterday morning. But for John and Robert Whitaker fortune was coming in at the flood. Three months after Robert’s 18th birthday and five months and five days after John collapsed with a near fatal haemorrhage in Stockholm, they are here readying to become on Tuesday the first father and son combination to represent Britain in the Nations Cup.

Both the enormity of their achievement and the immensity of John’s recovery are unique. Yet the two small men talking by the strictly functional La Baule stable block affect such completely Yorkshire ordinariness that you could as easily mistake them for stable lads as jockeys.

“It’s the horses that do it really,” says John Whitaker MBE, rider of those twin

legends Milton and Ryan’s Son, and still our highest-rated show jumper after 25 years, and 37 wins out of 122 Nations Cup competitions. “We just have to help them. And to find young ones that can make the grade.”

Five months ago in Sweden the only grade John looked like making was the “deceased” list in the Stockholm papers. He had been feeling fluey for a few days so, after schooling a couple of horses before breakfast, he and his wife Claire went upstairs to their hotel room for a rest. “He was lying on the bed coughing,” Claire remembered yesterday. “Then suddenly the coughing stopped. I gave him one look and rang the front desk for an ambulance.”

Claire hasn’t run the busy Whitaker household this past quarter of a century without calling a spade a spade. “They said `are you sure?’ ” she adds feistily. “I said `absolutely’.”

Within three hours John was enduring an intensely complicated operation which involved a micro-slim titanium tube being fed up all the way from his groin into his skull to drain the haemorrhage that the aneurism had caused. If his wife had not been in the room at the time, if he had not been so close to such a good hospital, today’s recovery would have been quite simply unthinkable.

As it was he returned to his farm at Upper Cumberworth, in Last of the Summer Wine country near Huddersfield, two days before Christmas, and after two months of “pottering around the yard” was riding horses again at the end of February and, incredibly, was back to international competition at Fontainbleu early in April.

“I still don’t feel 100 per cent” says John, whose bald head and lined eyes have always given him a weary look. “But that’s to be expected. I don’t think my reactions are quite what they were. A horse got rid of me a couple of weeks back which I think I would have stopped on in the past.”

No such self or external criticism was levelled at the calamitous crash which he and the massive Calvaro took at the last fence in the Grand Prix, at Maubeuge, in northern France only last weekend. “He was a long way from it,” remembers John, “but put down into the fence. I broke the peak of my cap and he has scars all over him,” he added.

The horse, who rejoices in the full name of Virtual Village Calvaro FCS, is a big bay German-bred brute of quite stunning hugeness. He stands 18 hands (6ft) at the shoulder and his massive stallion’s neck tops up a frame which must draw 1,800lb on the weighbridge.

For any ordinary rider, let alone one five months off a deathbed, his return would be something of an ordeal. Not for John Whitaker. What we and Calvaro got yesterday was just a typical Whitaker masterclass.

“His trick,” said young Irish star Billy Twomey, “is to do so much by seeming to do so little.”

A small, upright figure not so much perched as moulded in behind the mane. The strides measured long before the latest multi-coloured fence looms up in a maze-like show jumping journey. The confidence visibly growing as the great beast follows one jump with another. A clear round setting him up perfectly for today’s Grand Prix and the Nations Cup on Monday.

“Good job he has such a short memory,” jokes John afterwards, his formal scarlet riding coat an exact contrast to the earthy modesty of his being. “To think that Robert had the fastest round until he knocked one down in the same Grand Prix last week. We should have been first and second. That would have been £10,000, instead we got nothing. Time we took some francs off these guys.”

His professional partner in this enterprise is a smaller, chirpier, chip off the old block, with a pronounced version of his father’s triangular nose sticking out rightwards like the blade on a sundial. Robert Whitaker was only 18 in January making him the youngest Briton to represent his country since the then Marion Coakes took “wonder pony” Stroller to Poland for a Nations Cup back in 1965.

Back in those days Harvey Smith and David Broome were in their pomp and show jumping was part of prime-time TV. Robert Whitaker may not yet have the charisma nor the audience to return his sport to the glory days but don’t doubt that he is a talent of his own.

Off a horse he is just a little strip of a kid, joshing that he has to get to the yard first to do the feeding and the mucking out; that he might be nervous on Tuesday but “hasn’t thought about it yet”. On a horse he quickly transmutes into the ageless truths of all horsemen down the centuries.

Upright but supple, balanced but still, sympathetic yet firm. His Nations Cup horse is a fiery bay called Lord Liberty W, who was giving punchy bucks of well-being as he warmed up for yesterday’s opening competition. Lesser riders would have jagged at the reins, or over buzzed in reaction to this extravagant display of exuberance. But not Robert Whitaker. Like father, like son.

“He’s in a bit of a no-win situation,” says John. “If he does well, they can say it is just because of his background. If he doesn’t, they will say he should have. But he’s very competitive. I don’t really give him advice. I tell him things about horses just as he does me. You have to let people learn by their own mistakes.”

“Mind you,” John continues, the weary face cracking into its dry familiar smile. “I always thought his older sister Louise [20] was more talented. But at five foot, she is very small and it is hard to get a horse to suit her and I suppose I am very proud to be riding with my son in the national team.”

No surprise then to hear the Whitaker answer to the “la grande ambition” question at the occasionally hilarious bilingual press conference. It was for Britain to have an all-family team including daughter Louise and his brother Michael. With the Whitakers anything is possible. Just don’t expect any fuss about it.

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