Coming of age

A few days before his 21st birthday, James Whitaker scored his first major Hickstead win. Victoria Goff caught up with him ahead of the 2019 Longines Royal International Horse Show. 

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The traditional present is, of course, a key to the door – but when James Whitaker turned 21 he was presented with a far more spectacular piece of silverware.

Two days before his 21st birthday last summer, James won one of Hickstead’s iconic classes, the BHS Queen Elizabeth II Cup. In terms of birthday celebrations, it can’t get much better than that.

Surprisingly, James was the first person born into his famous family to have won the Queen’s Cup – Michael’s first wife Veronica is the only other Whitaker to have her name on the trophy, back in 1984. Even more remarkably, for someone who has been coming to Hickstead all his life, it was James’ first major win here and his very first attempt in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup.

Until 2008 when it became a national final open to the highest ranked British Showjumping riders, the Queen’s Cup used to be an international championship open to lady riders only. His win last year saw James become the sixth man to win the title – but he certainly faced strong competition from three ladies in the jump-off.

Event rider Pippa Funnell was the first to go against the clock with her husband William’s former ride Billy Congo. A clear round in a time of 54.34sec certainly put pressure on her rivals, with Alison Barton and Roma IV going on to pick up four faults. James was in next with the former Hickstead Derby winner Glenavadra Brilliant, and he had a tough task ahead of him. “It was a difficult one, because he isn’t that fast a horse. All I could do is go as quick as I could and hope to put enough to pressure on the others,” says James.

The plan paid off – utilising Glenavadra Brilliant’s long stride and making some economic turns, the pair crossed the finish on 52.97sec to go ahead of Pippa Funnell. Only Helen Tredwell and the grey Larksong could prevent them from winning, and sure enough they set off meaning business. But it wasn’t to be – the final fence fell, and although Helen was 2 sec up on the clock she would have to settle for third behind James and Pippa.

“It’s hard to put it into words how it felt to win, it was better than amazing, and it took a while to sink in,” James recalls. “When I went into the lead, it just felt surreal. To win anything in the main ring is brilliant, but for the Queen’s to be my first ever win there was incredible.”

James and Glenavadra Brilliant – that’s Jim and ‘Max’ to their friends – seem to relish our famous Longines International Arena. A few weeks before their win in the Queen’s, James rode the horse in the Al Shira’aa Derby, finishing a very creditable fifth with one fence down and a time fault. It was a promising Hickstead Derby debut for the young rider, although he did have the benefit of Max’s experience, having won the class in 2016 under James’ eldest brother William.  

“Knowing that he’s a past winner gave me confidence to jump those fences,” he says. “My biggest aim is to jump a clear in the Derby – if I can conquer that, I’d be delighted for me and for the horse. It would be great for him to win it again,” adds James, who also rode the horse in the build up to his 2016 win while William was off competing at five-star shows.

Max has now given all three brothers a spin round the Derby, with middle brother George finishing 15th on the horse’s first attempt in 2013. Certain horses just seem to love Hickstead and perform well here, and Glenavadra Brilliant is one of them. “He jumps unreal at Hickstead, because he’s a big horse who loves big grass arenas,” said James.

He certainly has all the bravery and scope needed to be a good Derby horse. A huge Irish chestnut by Brilliant Lad, he looks a sensible type when he’s jumping but at home he is anything but. “At home, he’s a mad man!” James laughs. “He lives in a 20ft x 20ft pen, stands there all day watching everyone, then when you go to get him in he becomes all playful – he’s a big horse when he starts wanting to play! He’s sharper than he looks. You go round the Derby and he doesn’t spook at all, whereas you take him down the road and he’ll spot something and try to run off. But in the ring he tries one hundred percent.”

Home for James is in Yorkshire, at the family farm owned by his parents. It’s a yard steeped in showjumping history, being the place where John and Michael grew up with their brothers Ian and Steven. James is now running the yard on his own, after his elder brother George set up a yard with his girlfriend and William moved abroad, first to Belgium and recently to the USA.

William’s move saw James take over the ride on several of his eldest brother’s horses, including Glenavadra Brilliant and Fandango. More recently he’s also taken over the reins on William’s Olympia winner Lammy Beach, and with another horse that has come from uncle Michael, he has a decent string to compete this season at the bigger shows as well as hundreds of young and novice rides to produce.

He credits his parents Ian and Alison as his biggest supporters. “My dad tries his best to come to every show, and he trains me too. My parents are there for me if I win or lose.” Being part of the famous Whitaker dynasty comes with its benefits too. “Not only have my uncles been amongst the best in the world for years, but Robert, William, Ellen and the rest of the family are all very good too. It’s useful to know if you go to a show, you can ask your family anything and they’re always going to be there with advice. We work together so often if there was a horse we didn’t get on with it might go well for one of the others. The downside is that it comes with a certain level of expectation, when people see the name Whitaker they automatically assume you’ll do well.”

It’s clear James has plenty of the family’s legendary talent, and don’t be surprised if the next few years see him go leaping up the Longines World Rankings. For now he is building his string, working hard and looking for new opportunities. In the Spring, he went out to visit William at his new place of work, Rushy Marsh Stables in Florida, to check out the showjumping scene and make new contacts there.

His passion for the sport is clearly evident. “I follow showjumping every day of the week, and check the results from every single show – I’m a bit of a weirdo like that!” he says. Aside from all things equestrian, he loves football and supports his local team, Huddersfield, and loves an occasional poker night and catch up with fellow riders.

As the Hickstead season grows closer, James will be busy preparing Max for another tilt at both the Al Shira’aa Derby and the BHS Queen Elizabeth II Cup. He works a lot on the horse’s fitness, especially for the lengthy Derby course, and will have a few training sessions at uncle Michael’s to practice fences like the Devil’s Dyke and the Bank.

There will be one person who sadly won’t be here to watch them in action at Hickstead and that’s Glenavadra Brilliant’s co-owner, Calvin MacDonald, who died in January of this year. “Calvin was always a big supporter of mine,” says James. “To do well again would be a great tribute to him.”

His main aims for this year are to nail that elusive clear round in the Al Shira’aa Derby, and he’d love to win Yorkshire’s famous Cock o’the North title too. He also has his sights set on jumping in the Longines King George V Gold Cup. “I love coming to Hickstead, and even when I wasn’t jumping here I’d always come down to watch,” he says. “It’s a brilliant show to win at.”

Then there’s the chance of another Queen’s Cup title, which would make him the first back-to-back winner since Marion Hughes in 1995 and 1996. James described his win last summer as ‘one ticked off the bucket list’ – and you just know he’s going to cross off a lot more ambitions in the years to come. At 21, James got the key to the door – and he is certainly going places.

This article was first published in July 2019 

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