Having the right horse matters more than ever at the British Open, where the special format means that the title is won by speed and care in the qualifiers, with scope coming to the fore in the final day’s championship.

And it’s a safe bet that last year’s champion, Robert Smith, will be trying every inch of the way when he returns to his Yorkshire roots at Sheffield’s Hallam FM Arena.

Warwickshire-based Robert started off in tremendous form last year, maintaining a good position all the way through to the final day, where Kalusha produced the only double clear. “On his day, there’s nothing Kalusha can’t win, but he does have a mind of his own — and he tends to pick the good days,” says Robert, who jokingly bets that no other rider would pick Kalusha as their ideal partner, before opting for the choice of three — Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s 2005 World Cup winner Shutterfly, Rodrigo Pessoa’s triple World Cup winner and Olympic Champion Baloubet Du Rouet, and Jessica Kurten’s Dubai Masters winner Quibell.

Having done much of the early promotional work to get the show off the ground, local hero John Whitaker would like nothing more than to hold the Steel City Trophy aloft. He reckons he would have every chance if he could partner Baloubet Du Rouet or Shutterfly, “Both horses are very careful, scopey and consistent. And if anyone who can help is reading this, they look just my type,” he says, hopefully.

But John’s son, Robert Whitaker, the inaugural champion here, is the most disappointed rider. Last year, Robert was saying he had the ride on the “best horse ever” in his Cock o’ the North winner, the eight-year-old Ublesco. “He’s got better and better and has unbelievable scope. He’s done everything we’ve asked,” he assessed at the time. But one of downsides of the sport is that most horses have a price tag and, with the sale of Ublesco to America, Robert’s hopes are now pinned on two mares, Nicolette and Prima Vera. He has been competing both in Europe during a stay in Germany with Ludger Beerbaum.

Looking forward to her second crack at the British Open, leading lady Ellen Whitaker had already put Shutterfly on last year’s Christmas wish list. “He’s a fabulous jumper, very competitive and just the most perfect horse,” sighs Ellen, who is hoping to have new partner It’s Magic Max ready for Sheffield.

Shutterfly is also the choice of Ellen’s uncle, Michael Whitaker. “He’s the right type and when he has to do it, he always seems to pull it off. He’s also very consistent, and that’s what this format is all about,” says Michael. “Basically, the horse is an out-and-out winner, and you do need a very good horse at Sheffield; this format is very demanding,” he says. “ I like his type — he’s fiery, with lots of blood — and he’s so consistent.”

Also eager to sit in Shutterfly’s saddle at Sheffield would be Kent-based Guy Williams. “He’s amazing — careful, scopey, a real trier and very consistent, which is what you need,” he says. “It’s a difficult system to cope with, even if you take two or three horses, but if I could ride Shutterfly, it would be a whole lot easier.” Unless Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum offers him the ride on her star horse, Guy will choose his partners for Sheffield just before the show starts.

Tim Stockdale thinks Jessica Kurten’s Quibell would be his perfect ride. “The format dictates that the right horses go through to the final day, when there are serious tracks. If you haven’t a horse to cope with these courses, you have no chance of winning,” he says.

It is not surprising that, whatever he were offered, Nick Skelton would stick to the Hales’s fabulous stallion Arko. Champions in 2004 and runners-up last year, Nick and Arko have what it takes to lift the crown. But Nick may need to look over his shoulder because William Funnell also nominates Arko as his ideal ride.

“Arko showed great form last season and he’s surely one of the best horses in the world. To me, Arko always looks a winner, and you can be sure he’ll have a go,” says William. “The format at the British Open is very different — and good for jumping — although it can perhaps be a bit difficult for spectators to follow.” With Cortaflex Mondriaan just back in work after colic surgery during Olympia, Cortaflex Amber Du Montois will spearhead William’s British Open challenge.

Two young southern-based riders, Ben Maher and Tim Gredley, are mounting a serious assault on the British Open. Ben casts a longing look at Coster, German rider Christian Ahlmann’s medallist at the Olympics and European Championships. Ben has Alfredo, Onassis and Niko ready to meet the challenge. “I think I’m in a much better position than at this time last year,” he adds.
Tim Gredley was one of the qualifiers from Addington last year, but is through by right this time. He is happy with his number one ride, Omelli.

“I think it’s quite defeatist not to believe you’re sitting on the best horse,” he says, with the confidence of youth. “Omelli’s in great shape, he’s a big jumper who rises to the occasion and has a lot more experience now. Omelli’s definitely good enough to win — I just hope I am.”

Don’t forget to visit Horse & Hound’s stand (G7) at the show – you might go home with a new Black Country Saddle worth £1,500. Other prizes up for grabs include a Mirotec rug and leg wraps; Harry Hall gear worth £500 and products from Net Tex, Nutriscience and Spillers.

If you take out a subscription to H&H, you will save 35% and get a free fleece rug.

For more information please visit www.britishopenshowjumping.co.uk

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