Jack Whitaker has announced his arrival in showjumping’s big league with his first five-star victory. The ambitious teenager chats to Jennifer Donald about Olympic goals, dealing with hard times and sharing horses with his dad
BUOYED by a life-defining first five-star success, Jack Whitaker is brimming with excitement about what the future holds. This ambitious and supremely talented 19-year-old has long shaped in a similar mould to his Olympic silver medal-winning father, Michael, while confidently paving his own path on the jumping circuit. But as if his world-famous surname wasn’t a signal in itself, Jack’s recent victory at the first of this year’s majors, the Dutch Masters, has put Jack firmly on the map as a rider to watch.
“Jumping in my first Rolex grand prix there felt like a big deal but it’s where I’ve wanted to be my whole life, so it was like I was meant to be there,” he ponders with a laid-back approach that also sees him undaunted by competing against some of the highest ranked riders in the world.
“Winning a five-star class was definitely on my bucket list, but I was hoping it was more about when it was going to happen rather than if it was going to happen. I went there to win, not just to participate, so to win the Audi prize was fantastic.
“I love going to those kinds of shows because, even without the crowd there, you immediately feel the atmosphere and there’s definitely a bit more tension.”
Jack is still based at the Whitaker family home in Nottinghamshire, with his father Michael, mother Melissa, and sisters Katie and Molly. However, like many British showjumpers in the wake of Brexit, Jack is having to curtail the number of journeys across the English border and instead uses the stables of Roelof Bril in the Netherlands as a temporary base between shows, which is where we caught up with the two-time pony European gold medallist before a two-week stint on the Italian circuit.
“It’s certainly easier than going home, so we’ll just roll with it for a bit,” he says.
RATHER like a student exchange programme, Roelof Bril’s son Robin is currently based at the Whitaker stables riding lots of the younger horses, and Jack’s top string currently boasts four high-calibre equines in seasoned campaigner Valmy De La Lande, a big winner for Michael, the up-and-coming nine-year-old Haya Loma N and his five-star winning mare Scenletha, owned by ESM Equestrian, while his Liverpool grand prix runner-up Elucar VE is just returning from injury.
“Hopefully I can have the same success as my dad with Valmy, while Scenletha is a fantastic mare who I’ve been riding for a while,” says Jack. “I was lucky that ESM Equestrian with John Evans bought into her because we still do a lot of business selling horses – it’s how we keep the show going – and there’s always a lot of interest in one like her. In the end she’ll probably get sold, but I was very grateful when he bought in because it meant I could keep the ride on her a bit longer.
“My dad rode Haya Loma last year so she is a new one to me and she’s just started jumping 1.45m ranking classes, but she’s looking like she’ll be one of the best.
“That’s just how it works between my dad and me – whoever needs a horse gets a horse! So when I managed to get into a few bigger shows at a time when my dad wasn’t doing as much, he was nice enough to let me borrow Valmy for a few bigger shows and I’m sure when he starts to do a bit more, he’ll want him back!
“But it’s all very easy; it’s a great system at home and it’s a great place to be – whoever’s there rides them and hopefully some of them will turn out to be good.”
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the sport, says Jack, is developing the young horses and he and his father have an enviable breeding programme which is producing some real superstars.
“It’s very satisfying to feel one improving underneath you,” says Jack. “I massively enjoy bringing on the young ones we’ve produced ourselves, so I hope we continue to have the success we’ve had with our breeding lines.”
A phenomenal career on youth squads has also laid excellent foundations for Jack.
“I don’t think moving up the levels ever comes quick – you’re lucky if it does,” he explains. “The move from ponies to juniors to young riders then two-star – which would be fairly similar to young riders – was easy enough, but going up to three-star competitions is another ball game altogether and the grands prix are much harder. Then it’s another big step up to four-star and a massive leap to five-star. But it all comes with experience, too, so I’m just trying to get to as many of these shows as possible.
“My dad will still come and give me a hand at the bigger ones. But when I was younger, he was always away at shows so I went to shows a bit by myself – it was great training, but there were some hard times, too.
“His best piece of advice is to stay relaxed, don’t worry about it too much and be confident in your ability.”
One of the finest testimonies to Jack’s natural aptitude in the saddle came last year when he was one of just seven European athletes selected for the Young Riders Academy, which offers a programme of training and education in all aspects of the sport.
“Your federation puts you forward then they do a two-day selection trial, so it was fantastic to be picked,” enthuses Jack. “They help you get into a few bigger shows – which is how I was able to compete at ‘s-Hertogenbosch – then there’s lots of training offered so I’m going to Jos Lansink for six months at some point. Then they also do a lot of the social media side of things, too, which is really helpful – I need to get better actually.”
WHILE this year’s sporting calendar is constantly shifting during uncertain times, Jack hopes to build on his recent big league success and his senior Nations Cup team debut last year has certainly whetted his appetite to represent his country.
“I’m going to try to do as much as I can – hopefully more Nations Cups, then try to get into more, bigger shows while hopefully keeping some good form,” he says. “Nothing beats that winning feeling, it’s surreal – the competitive side of the sport is fantastic and jumping at the highest level is the reason I want to keep going to those shows.
“But the day before I won that five-star class, I got it completely wrong; I only had one fence down, but it was a bit my mistake. When that happens, all you want to do is get straight back in the ring and try again. You’re constantly looking for success. I find dealing with disappointment very hard. I’m a fairly positive, relaxed kind of person, but when I messed up in that class, it really knocked me – I was so annoyed with myself. It’s always the little things, too, so you can drive yourself round in circles thinking about it.
“I’ve learnt to get over these things a bit quicker now, but it never gets easier.”
When it comes to recharging the batteries, Jack will take himself off to the nearest golf course or driving range and he loves playing six-a-side football with some of his fellow riders back home.
“It’s that competitive side in me again!” he says. “Golf courses are everywhere and it’s quiet – you don’t have to talk about anything and it’s easy to get away from it all for a bit.”
But showing the same focus that has kept his father at the top of his game for four decades, it doesn’t take long for Jack to hone in on his next targets.
“Nations Cups, European Championships and the Olympics are all part of the plan,” he says. “Jumping in my first senior Nations Cup last year was a really fantastic moment and hopefully just the start of a long career jumping for Great Britain.
“Hopefully we can keep the ball rolling. It’s a team effort, so I owe a lot to everyone behind the scenes for making it all possible. I never want it to stop.”
You can also read this report in the 27 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
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