60 years of Derby legends
Written by Victoria Goff
Some incredible combinations have won the iconic Hickstead Derby over the years. With the 60th Al Shira’aa Derby taking place this year, Victoria Goff takes a look at some of the standout performances from the past six decades.
Irishman Seamus Hayes and Goodbye are among one of the best showjumping combinations of all time, so it’s apt they hold the honour of being the first winners of the Hickstead Derby. Seamus had arrived the night before the first Derby, announcing that he’d “come to show them all how to jump the bloody Bank!” This he duly did, notching up the only clear round out of the 60 starters. Goodbye is also the youngest horse to win the class, at just six years old.
International superstar Pat Smythe became the first female Hickstead Derby winner, in what was the second renewal of the class in 1921. Pat had to jump-off for honours against Ireland’s Tommy Wade and the 15hh part-bred Connemara Dundrum, but when the Irish pair knocked down the Derby Rails after the water jump, Pat was able to go for a steady clear on Flanagan to take the win.
A dramatic year
Was 1963 the most mishap-filled year in Derby history? There were no clear rounds that year, although David Broome and Mister Softee had left all the fences standing only to slip and fall on the flat. Ted Edgar had to jump round with his arm in a sling, having been injured in a schooling accident, and eventual winner Nelson Pessoa didn’t receive his trophy because it has been stolen from a shop window in London shortly before the show!
Broome sweeps the board
David Broome had his sole Derby win with Mister Softee, during the first full season as a partnership. They went on to win the European Championships at Hickstead in 1967 and 1969.
Small but mighty
Marion Coakes (later Mould) and Stroller are perhaps the most beloved showjumping combination of all time. They were the realisation of a million pony-mad little girls’ dreams – the teenage rider and her little pony who took on the world’s best showjumpers and won classes all over the world, including an Olympic silver medal. Stroller is undoubtedly the smallest equine to win the Hickstead Derby, standing at around 14.2hh. Although they only won the Derby once, in 1967, they did jump clear a further two times in 1964 and 1968.
The Hickstead Derby was still in its first decade when it had its third female winner, with Anneli Drummond-Hay winning on board the diminutive Xanthos II. As well as being a prolific showjumper, Anneli also competed at the top level in three-day eventing, winning the first ever Burghley Horse Trials with Merely-a-Monarch, who was third in the Derby in 1963.
In 60 years of Hickstead history, perhaps the most memorable moment of all was when Harvey Smith put two fingers up – quite literally – at the showjumping establishment. Having returned to the showground as the reigning Derby champion, following his 1970 win with Mattie Brown, Harvey had failed to bring back the trophy. When Douglas Bunn asked that it be brought down from Yorkshire, Harvey told him he needn’t bother as he’d be winning it again anyway. Douglas was unimpressed, and an argument ensued, and eventually, the trophy was sent for. Harvey went on to beat Stephen Hadley in a thrilling jump-off, and as he crossed the finish line he circled Mattie Brown and flicked a quick, but unmistakable, V-sign at the Master’s Box.
Harvey was later disqualified and stripped of his £2,000 winning cheque, with the title passing to Hadley instead, but after a BSJA tribunal the title and prizemoney were reinstated and Harvey became the first back-to-back winner of the Derby. The whole furore was covered extensively in the press and the ‘Harvey Smith V-sign’ soon entered the nation’s vocabulary, though Harvey and Douglas would later agree the moment was perhaps the best PR showjumping had ever had. Despite the controversy, the pair remained good friends for the rest of Bunn’s life.
The second female winner of the Derby was Alison Westwood, who won on board The Maverick VII in 1968. She actually became the first (and to date only) lady to win two Derby titles, going on to repeat her win in 1973. By this time, she had married and was now known as Alison Dawes, while a new sponsorship deal meant The Maverick was now renamed Mr Banbury.
The greatest of all time
The great Boomerang took Eddie Macken to victory for an incredible four years in a row, a record that has never been surpassed or matched in the fifty years since. After his fourth win in a row, Eddie kept the original trophy and a new one, depicting him and Boomerang descending the Derby Bank, has been presented to the winners of the Hickstead Derby ever since.
Not only was Boomerang a superb Derby horse, but he also won countless Grands Prix and Nations Cups around the world, and he helped take Eddie to the world number one position for three years running. He also produced four clear rounds in the 1978 World Championships, just missing out on a gold medal by just a fraction of a time fault.
Two years after Eddie Macken set a record with his run of consecutive Derby wins, Harvey Smith became the second rider to net a total of four wins in Hickstead’s most famous class. His fourth title came courtesy of Sanyo Video, who was normally the ride of his son Robert, but who couldn’t compete in the Derby due to being on a month’s suspension. Harvey described the performance as the best ride he had ever given a horse round the Hickstead Derby course, and after he won he dropped his reins and gave a two-handed V-sign, much to the delight of the crowd.
Double for Deister
Germany’s Paul Schockemöhle is another three-time winner of the Hickstead Derby, winning in 1982 and 1986 on Deister and netting another win in 1985 with Lorenzo. Deister was unlucky not to win the 1984 Derby as well when his bridle broke in the jump-off, denying him the title as well as stopping Paul from joining the illustrious group of four-time Derby winners.
Nick Skelton was another to come very close to that exclusive group of four-time winners, netting three wins on the trot from 1987 to 1989. His first win came with J Nick, followed by a double with the hugely popular Apollo. The pair were then very unlucky to miss out in the 1990 Derby, losing in a jump-off against Joe Turi and Vital, which prevented them from matching Eddie Macken’s record.
Mon Santa’s treble
Michael Whitaker’s horse Mon Santa was well into his teens when he gave Whitaker a hat-trick of consecutive Derby wins – the first horse since Boomerang to achieve this feat. Michael had already scored his first win on Owen Gregory in 1980, when he was just 20 years old, meaning his winning streak in the early 1990s saw him join Eddie Macken and Harvey Smith as a four-time Derby champion.
Ledingham leads the way
John Ledingham had his first Derby win in 1984 with Gabhran, before going on to add a double in 1994 and 1995 with the chestnut Irish Sports Horse gelding Kilbaha, who was described by Ledingham as the best horse he ever sat on. John was another rider who was unlucky to miss out on a fourth win when Kilbaha slipped and faulted at the first fence during the jump-off in 1998.
Still going strong
The honour of being the oldest winner of the Hickstead Derby, as well as the rider to have the longest gap between his first and last victories, is the great Nelson Pessoa. His first win was way back in the drama-filled year of 1963 with the grey Gran Geste, with the pair going on to repeat their victory in 1965. More than 30 years later, in 1996, Nelson returned to the top of the line-up with the 19-year-old veteran Loro Piana Vivaldi. By then, Nelson was 60 years old and had suffered a heart attack the previous November, so he had to wear a heart monitor. He proceeded to jump the only four-fault round that year to claim the title.
Oldies but goodies
The legendary John Whitaker has a number of Derby accolades to his name. Along with brother Michael, he is one of the five riders to net four Derby wins during his career. Uniquely, all four of John’s wins came on different horses, with Ryan’s Son giving him his first victory in 1984, Gammon his second in 1998, Welham his third in 2000 and Buddy Bunn his fourth in 2004. Gammon is the oldest horse to win the Hickstead Derby, at the age of 21, while Welham is the second oldest at 20.
Only two mares have ever won the Hickstead Derby – the first was John Popely’s Bluebird in 1997, and the second was the great Corrada, who won three years in a row (2001-2003) with Peter Charles. She didn’t have a single fence down in those three years, although she did get time faults during her first Derby win after crossing the start line three seconds late.
Having founded Hickstead and come up with the idea of the British Jumping Derby, it was a huge honour for Douglas Bunn when his homebred star Buddy Bunn took the title in 2004. The horse had originally been produced by his daughter Chloe, before being successfully campaigned by William Funnell. However, a groin strain meant William couldn’t ride the horse in the Derby, and a last-minute call-up was given to John Whitaker, who produced a beautiful double clear to beat his niece Ellen to the title.
Ben shoots into the limelight
Britain’s Ben Maher was just 22 years old when he won the Hickstead Derby, a moment he credits for launching his international career. Since then he’s gone on to win Olympic team and individual gold, as well as being ranked number one in the world.
Tina reaches the Promised Land
Having jumped double clear in 2010 but lost out in the jump-off to Guy Williams and Skip Two Ramiro, Tina Fletcher had come very close to becoming the fifth woman to win the Derby. Twelve months later her Derby dream was realised when the pair produced the only clear round to win the title. Tina was the first female winner in 37 years, and there hasn’t been another since – though several lady riders, including Harriet Nuttall and Holly Smith, have come close.
First to go
Loughnatousa WB is the only horse to ever win the Derby twice under two different riders, though Pele (the 1975 winner with Paul Darragh, and the 1997 runner-up with Eddie Macken, by this time renamed Kerrygold) very nearly did. WB’s first win was a bit of a surprise as he’d been drawn first to go with Ireland’s Paul Beecher, with the pair coming out on top after a jump-off with William Funnell and Dorada. The horse claimed his second title three years later with Trevor Breen.
Trevor Breen’s ride Adventure De Kannan had won nearly every major international title at Hickstead, including the British Speed Derby, the All England Grand Prix, the Eventing Grand Prix and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, but a win in the Derby kept eluding them. His chances looked to be in question when the Irish Sports Horse gelding had to have an operation to remove an eye just a few months before the 2014 Derby. But ‘Addy’ was soon back to his best, and in the Derby, he had just one fence down in the first round to guarantee a jump-off against the previous year’s winners, Phillip Miller and Caritiar Z. What ensued was the closest Derby final of all time, with both combinations faulting but Trevor and Addy finishing just 200th of a second faster to claim the win.
William Funnell kept coming close to achieving his ambition of winning the Derby – In 1997, he finished runner up after Comex knocked down the 1m high jump on top of the Derby Bank, and in 2004 he was injured and missed the winning ride on Buddy Bunn. His dream finally came true in 2006 with victory on Mondriaan, who went on to win a further two times in 2008 and 2009. William’s fourth win came in 2018 on the homebred Billy Buckingham.
The most recent running of the Al Shira’aa Derby saw the youngest ever winner of Hickstead’s most famous class, with the then 19-year-old Irish rider Michael Pender taking the win on Hearton Du Bois Halleux in what was their first Derby attempt. With the 60th Hickstead Derby taking place this week, will we see another record-breaking win? As the rich history of this class shows, anything can happen.
- The Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting takes place from 23-26 June 2022. Tickets are on sale now from hickstead.co.uk