Ask any sports fan in the UK if they’ve heard of Hickstead and the answer is likely to be: “Is that the place where horses go up and down a big bank?”
Of course, the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead is an awful lot more than just that, with the venue celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Hickstead Derby this year, and the class is one of those unique British occasions that crosses the line between sport and general interest.
In 1961, when Douglas Bunn supervised the construction of permanent obstacles to run a Derby class at his West Sussex home, not even he could have imagined that six decades later that same competition over an almost identical course would still be making headlines.
Every Derby provides its own story. In 1963, Ted Edgar tackled the course with his broken arm in a sling and in 1996, 60-year-old Brazilian Nelson Pessoa was still recovering from a heart attack when he arrived at the showground. He wore a heart monitor in case the excitement got too much and still jumped the winning round, adding this to his two victories in the 1960s.
The Hickstead Derby has been won by a pony – the incomparable Stroller – and provided a phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary after a triumphant V-sign following the winning round in 1971 became known as “doing a Harvey Smith”.
Douglas devised the course after a trip to Hamburg in Germany, which began hosting its own Derby in 1924. When Douglas visited, he took measurements of Hamburg’s bank and added a few inches to ensure that his version would be bigger.
At 10ft 6in (3.20m) high, Hickstead’s Derby Bank is slightly smaller than a double decker bus and was originally built of chalk with a clay outer layer. The inner core is now concrete and in 2005, the angle was lessened due to Douglas’s concerns that modern showjumpers rarely went hunting and were unlikely to have met unusual obstacles.
Early videos show a few different fences, but today’s riders still follow the same route as Ireland’s Seamus Hayes, the first winner with the only clear round on Goodbye III.
This pair made light work of the Derby Bank after many other riders thought it too dangerous and refused to jump. And Goodbye must have enjoyed his experience, as he carried Seamus to a second win two years later.
Despite the fact that modern showjumping seems a different sport from those early days, the Hickstead Derby is a class that makes the best riders keep coming back. Instead of competing against each other, they are trying to beat a unique course. Where else would you see showjumpers receiving an ovation for coming through the finish with a hatful of faults?
Fun Hickstead Derby facts
Only six female riders have won the Derby. The first was Pat Smythe, who triumphed on Flanagan in 1962 in a jump-off against Ireland’s Tommy Wade and his 15hh Dundrum. Tina Fletcher was the latest female winner in 2011. Having finished second twice, Tina rode Promised Land – also a puissance specialist – to win with only the 53rd clear round in the history of the competition.
Famous five four-timers
There have been some tremendous Hickstead Derby specialists. Eddie Macken and Boomerang dominated with four wins from 1976 to 1979.
The first of Michael Whitaker’s victories came with Owen Gregory in 1980, and the Yorkshireman completed his four-timer on Monsanta in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
Michael’s brother, John Whitaker, has also enjoyed four Derby wins. His first came with Ryan’s Son in 1983, while he was also victorious on Gammon (1998), Welham (2000) and Buddy Bunn (2004). Harvey Smith won in 1970 and 1971 on Mattie Brown, in 1974 with Salvador and took a fourth title on Sanyo Video in 1981.
More recently, William Funnell triumphed in 2018 on Billy Buckingham, adding this to his 2006, 2008 and 2009 wins with Cortaflex Mondriaan.
David Broome enjoyed his only Derby victory on Mister Softee in 1966, but they should have won in 1963. There were no clear rounds that year and Mister Softee was foot-perfect, only to slip up on the flat.
In 2011, Ronnie Healy looked on course for a clear until Carlow Cruiser reared up and collected four faults for a disobedience, costing them the chance to jump-off against Tina Fletcher and Promised Land.
Probably the unluckiest of the lot is Harriet Biddick (née Nuttall) and A Touch Imperious, whose record is four second places and one third. If any pair deserves to win the Derby trophy, it’s them, and perhaps this is the year they’ll do it.
Heroes from Hickstead
Alison Westwood won her first Derby in 1968 on The Maverick III, and they won it again five years later. Alison was now Alison Dawes and The Maverick’s name had been changed to Mr Banbury after Alison’s sponsors. The Maverick started his career at Hickstead with Douglas Bunn, who bought him in Ireland at the same time as his other great horse, Beethoven. “He was small and sharp and didn’t suit Douglas, so he asked me to try him. No one liked Maverick but me, so I bought him!” says Alison.
In 2004, William Funnell missed out on what could have helped him towards a record fifth win. He had been due to ride the Bunn family’s home-bred Buddy Bunn in the Derby, but was ruled out through injury after the Derby Trial. John Whitaker sat on Buddy Bunn for the first time the day before the Derby, which he then won in a jump-off against his 18-year-old niece, Ellen.
First is first
Only one horse has won the Hickstead Derby from the first draw. This was Patricia Brown’s Loughnatousa WB, who jumped clear for Ireland’s Paul Beecher in 2012 before beating William Funnell and Dorada in the jump-off. WB saved his best for this class. He was placed every time he contested it and won again in 2015 for Trevor Breen, who had won the year before on Adventure De Kannan.
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