The leading showjumper talks to Jennifer Donald about Catwalk IV, the tough quest for future stars and hoping to represent his family at the World Cup Final
It’s been 29 years since the Whitaker name was last etched on the World Cup trophy. But next month, Robert is hoping to join the elopers, gamblers and thrill-seekers boarding a Las Vegas-bound flight for the prestigious final.
It was Robert’s father John who rode Milton to the first of their back-to-back World Cup victories back in 1990, but memories of his uncle Michael’s runner-up finish at the world-famous Thomas and Mack Center in 2005 have really inspired Robert this season.
“That event was something special. I’ve jumped in a few World Cup Finals, but I’ve always wanted to compete in Vegas,” says the 37-year-old Yorkshireman, who just missed out on automatic qualification – competition to secure a place at this year’s finale has been hotter than the Nevada sun. He remains hopeful he could yet qualify on a wild card.
Robert’s leading partner this season has been his stable superstar Catwalk IV – the 17-year-old who was wayward in his youth, but has been nurtured into a top grand prix horse.
“He certainly had a lot of character as a young horse, but he’s just been incredible,” says Robert. “Some horses lose their jump as they get older, but he doesn’t feel like a 17-year-old – he’s still so scopey and finds it all very easy.”
In Helsinki in November, Robert not only won his first World Cup qualifier, but also secured a rare double when heading the show’s grand prix, too.
“It was crazy – I can’t explain it,” says Robert, searching for the words to describe that momentous weekend. “You know things like that can happen, but when they do… Catwalk was jumping so well and it was just one of those weekends that was meant to happen. Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a few other horses, but various things have gone wrong and it’s always ended up coming back to Catwalk. He’s incredible.”
But herein lies the problem for Robert – to remain competitive through a long season, modern-day showjumpers need at least two or three top mounts and, despite casting his net far and wide, his search has proved elusive. While Catwalk has remained the backbone to a successful international campaign, retirement is looming and a lack of horsepower weighs heavy on Robert’s mind.
“When you only have one horse to jump the big classes, you have to take it step by step because you can’t chase them all. You can also be winning one week and have a lame horse the next,” he says.
“To be able to set goals and achieve them, you need the horses, but it takes time. So you need resilience, but it’s hard to stay positive sometimes. I’m staying motivated, but I hope things come in my direction.”
One problem, Robert ponders, is that many people assume that being part of the legendary Whitaker dynasty means they’re never short of horses. He reveals: “That’s not the case and in the past few years, I haven’t been offered many horses to ride at all. People will spend big money on a horse and just presume we’re doing well so they don’t need to send it to us. But we’re always looking for new superstars and new owners; we want to work with everyone. And if someone has a good horse that they want to see competing at good shows, we’re the best people to get in touch with, because there aren’t many shows we can’t ride at.”
Building an entire yard from scratch
Robert has settled in West Sussex with his wife Kate and two children, having built his entire yard from scratch over the past three years.
As we amble down the cosy American barn-style stables on a Baltic winter’s day, a string of inquisitive faces glance up from their lunchtime feed buckets.
As well as good old Catwalk, there’s Strides Hatton’s Treasure, Jessie Drea’s top horse Dekato, multi-winning Major Delacour, the exciting six-year-old Cavaso Z and new ride Cirrus – as well as barns full of home-breds and youngstock. But really catching the eye as he stands proudly under the heat lamps is a strapping black stallion, whose star quality is almost breathtaking. Meet Vermento, a seven-year-old bred by John out of Robert’s former top ride Vicky Van De Grundeval and with his sire Argento’s DNA stamped all over him. Could this drop-dead handsome fellow, who towers well over 17hh, potentially be Robert’s future champion?
“I often have to sell the young horses to keep everything going, but Vermento was bought from my dad by Caroline and Stephen Blatchford so I could keep the ride,” says Robert. “They are fantastic backers.
“I do believe when I find that elusive superstar I could be the family’s next world number one. The highest ranking I’ve achieved is number 12 and that was over a decade ago.”
Being a member of the close-knit Whitaker family means there’s a constant web of support.
“My dad and I still have horses together and I speak to both my parents if I have any issues,” says Robert, whose sisters Louise and Joanne are well known for producing younger horses.
“I do a lot of shows with [Uncle] Michael so we’re pretty close, too, and he lent me El Wee Widge for a bit while I was short of a horse – we’re always helping each other and you know there’s always someone to turn to for advice.”
‘It’s a tough sport’
Robert has been married to showjumper Kate for five years and she completes the team perfectly through her forte of educating their young horses. The next generation, daughters Evie, six, and Millie, three, both have ponies and encourage Robert to maximise his time at home.
“I leave for shows as late as possible and get back as soon as I can because otherwise you could be away from Wednesday to Monday,” he explains. “It’s great to take the kids out for a day away from the horses. They seem keen on riding, but I’m not over-fussed about them following in my footsteps – it’s a tough sport. If they want to do it, I’ll try to help as best as I can, but if they take another direction I’ll support them in that, too.”
Can Robert see himself enjoying the same longevity as his father? He laughs: “I definitely won’t be jumping at my dad’s age! But I’m sure I’ll be riding for a lot longer yet because I haven’t achieved all the things I want to – I’ve never competed at Aachen, I’ve never jumped on a championship or Olympic team. And to be world number one is something I’d love.”
With an appreciative glance towards the glittering array of silverware that decorates the shelves of his snug office, he adds: “I do look at these and think, ‘Wow, I have won a lot, including a few five star grands prix, but I haven’t achieved as much as some riders and there are still a lot of big ones I want to win.’
“Even when you’re not on the best horse you have to believe you can win. If you don’t believe, it just won’t happen. The sport has become so competitive that leaving one stride out can make the difference between finishing first or fourth. I always watch the action when I can – there are so many small things you can pick up on. I’ve seen for example, if the distance is on a dog-leg and it’s a steady seven strides, some people take the outside line to ride a quicker seven. You can always keep improving and changing your tactics.”
Whether or not Robert makes it to Nevada next month, there is still plenty to look forward to this year.
“The Olympics wouldn’t be an aim for Catwalk – he doesn’t jump water amazingly,” he explains. “Otherwise I probably would have gone to Rio with him. I pick the shows that suit him and try to win as much as I can, but I really have to do my own thing rather than try to be part of Nations Cups and other teams. If I had the right horse I’d love to support the team, and hopefully that horse may be just around the corner – you never know.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 12 March 2020