John Whitaker presses Rio 2016 credentials in Liverpool
British star John Whitaker made a blistering start to the inaugural Equestrian.com Liverpool International Horse Show as he announced his Rio Olympics credentials in style.
But the opening day was shrouded in sadness following the death of Irish rider Cameron Hanley's horse Antello Z.
The 13-year-old bay gelding hesitated before taking off at a fence in Friday's 1.45m two-phase international class at Liverpool Echo Arena, and then stumbled on landing.
Writing on his Facebook page, Hanley said: "It is with unbelievable sadness I let you know that my partner Antello had to be put down today due to an injury sustained in the ring.
"He was such a fighter and he never quit. I had some of my best days in the ring with him. He brought me, and those of us who were lucky enough to work with him, so much happiness."
In a statement, show organisers said: "Organisers of the Equestrian.com Liverpool International Horse Show announce with a sense of deep regret and profound sadness that the 13-year-old bay gelding Antello Z has been put to sleep.
"The horse received expert on-site veterinary assessment and care.
"The rider was uninjured."
And show president Nina Barbour added: "We offer our heartfelt and sincere condolences to Cameron, his support team, the Hanley family and all connections of a truly wonderful horse."
Whitaker, meanwhile, thrilled a bumper crowd by winning the accumulator class and claiming runners-up spot behind recent Olympia World Cup winner Emanuele Gaudiano in the 1.45 metre two-phase competition.
And his performance served immediate notice that he means business at the launch of Rio Olympics year, with 60-year-old Whitaker hoping to put himself in contention for a possible sixth Games appearance.
The accumulator, sponsored by Equiline/Fearns Farm Partnership - where riders score points for fences jumped - has a maximum 65 points available, including the invaluable joker fence, and Whitaker showed his rivals a clean pair of heels.
His maximum score in a time of 43.82 seconds aboard Echo of Light ensured a comfortable victory, with Belgium's Wilm Vermeir finishing second on Hacienda d'Eversem, while William Whitaker was third aboard Fandango.
"I was second last to go, so I knew what I had to do," Whitaker said.
"If you go really fast in a class like that, you are going to knock the planks down. It's a fine line between going quickly enough and keeping your control to jump the last plank.
"Once I jumped one or two, he felt quite relaxed and I knew I was away, so I went for it."
Gaudiano earlier continued his rich vein of form just 12 days after winning the Longines FEI World Cup qualifier at Olympia in London.
Riding Cocoshynsky, Gaudiano landed the two-phase class, sponsored by Harthill Stud, in a jump-off time of 29.25 seconds, which proved just enough to edge out Whitaker, riding Lord of Arabia, and land a £6,000 first prize.
"Lord of Arabia jumped well at Olympia, and he hasn't jumped a fence since then, but he came out great today. I am very pleased," Whitaker added.
Dutch rider Johnny Pals, who left his home in Belgium at 5.45am on Friday for Liverpool, took the 1.50 metre jump-off class, sponsored by Crabbies Alcoholic Ginger Beer.
Pals' time of 34.72 seconds aboard Fernando denied a double British challenge from Robert Bevis (Courtney Z) and Robert Smith (Bavi), with those combinations having to be content with second and third, respectively.
"It is a super horse," Pals said. "I have had him for just over a year, and I really think he is my best horse ever."