John Whitaker: ‘Hickstead was one of the greatest weeks of my life’


  • Legendary British showjumper John Whitaker reflects on two momentous wins at Hickstead and ponders the blood rule

    Winning the Nations Cup on home soil at Hickstead on Friday was right up there as one of the very best. But when my son Robert followed that with victory in Sunday’s King George V Gold Cup, on a horse I bred, it became one of the greatest weeks of my life.

    The Nations Cup win was made all the more special because it was so long coming. After 13 years, it was certainly about time we won it. Every year, I think we should win our own Nations Cup, then it never happens. Sometimes we’ve even been right down the bottom. We did have a good feeling coming into it this year. There was a great team spirit and we were all rooting for each other. So it was a much-needed win, but we won it well.

    The first time I was picked for my home Nations Cup, David Broome and Harvey Smith were on the team and I just thought “I’ve made it”. But I have to thank Equine America Unick Du Francport, who is keeping me right up there at the top of the sport.

    I was disappointed with my first round because I thought I was a bit unlucky. The plank came off the front, which is unusual. I think it must have been because it’s sited slightly uphill. No, I blame the wind! But in the second round, he jumped even better. I’d only just heard about Mark McAuley’s elimination due to the blood rule as I came in, so I didn’t know that if I jumped clear we would win, but you always try to jump clear anyway.

    It was a good crowd. They’ve been rooting for us for the past 13 years and keep coming back, so it’s good we gave them something to cheer about this time. When you don’t win on your home ground, you do feel disappointed for them and you feel as though you’ve let your country down. You’ve let everybody down.

    I think it would be desperately sad if we lost the Nations Cup at Hickstead. We’re up against it with the channel and Brexit, so you have to put on something like this to encourage the good foreigners to come. I think we probably need it more than most for that very reason.

    The blood rule

    Of course, horse welfare comes first, but the blood rule, which came into play in the Nations Cup with the elimination of Ireland’s Mark McAuley, is really harsh. I actually think the stipendiary stewards should be able to use their discretion a bit. Mark didn’t mean to do anything wrong – when horses put in a big jump, your legs go back and it’s so easy to catch the horse’s side slightly with your spur.

    There’s a huge difference between doing that unintentionally and being abusive, but the elimination rule covers it all. You could get a wasp sting or catch a branch and end up with the slightest bit of blood that way. But then allowing stewards some discretion means the outcome comes down to someone’s opinion, so it’s a difficult one.

    But I do think stewards’ checks should be done out of sight of TV cameras and everybody watching, as it leaves the impression that the sport is bad, which it’s absolutely not.

    Full credit to Hickstead

    I have to give full credit to the organisers, Lizzie and Edward and the whole Bunn family. We had rain and the ground was still perfect. The courses were good, too.

    The show caters for everyone, from the under-10s to the Nations Cup and everything in between. With nine Whitakers there, we were out in force, but there were even more horses – a staggering 3,500 in total.

    So with great jumping, some Whitaker wins and a fantastic atmosphere, this was definitely one of the best shows in the world.

    ● Do you agree with John about the blood rule? Let us know at hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and county, for the chance to have your views published in a future edition of Horse & Hound magazine

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 3 August, 2023

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