10 iconic Derby moments

Last seen disappearing into our dusky archives, Hickstead Press Officer and journalist Victoria Spicer has put together a review of 10 of our most iconic Derby moments over the years, specially for our HDC members. 

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1.  The best of all

Since 1980, the winner of the Derby has held the Boomerang Trophy aloft. This stunning bronze, sculpted by Emma McDermott, shows a horse and rider descending the Derby bank – and the pair depicted is none other than Boomerang and Eddie Macken, the most successful Hickstead Derby competitors of all time.

Statistically, horses that have won the Derby once have a good chance of repeating their victory – but Eddie and Boomerang’s record remains unsurpassed in the 35 years since their run of four consecutive wins. Their first win came in 1976, when they produced a faultless round to net the only clear. The following year, Macken stamped his Derby authority even further when he finished first and second on Boomerang and Kerrygold. Both horses were part of a five-strong jump-off, with all five horses having incurred four-faults in the first round. But Eddie and Boomerang, first to go in the jump-off, set a time no one could match.

Amazingly, their hat-trick came in 1978, just seven days after the pair finished a close second in the World Championships in Aachen – which had included the gruelling final round where the top four riders jump a round on each of the other three finalists’ horses. Although Eddie only managed the runner-up spot, Boomerang was the best horse on the day jumping a perfect clear round with each of the four riders.

They completed the set in 1979, when the ground conditions were terrible and they were the last to go. No one had managed better than eight faults, until the reigning victors came in and had just one fence down to take the title for a fourth time.

Afterwards, Eddie rode off with the gold trophy that had been presented to him in the ring, so his sponsor Carrolls commissioned the replacement Boomerang Trophy. That day, the Irishman – who topped the World Rankings three times and won countless Grands Prix around the world, paid tribute to his record-breaking horse. “For me, he’s the best horse ever; I’m certainly very lucky to have him. I think people who saw him, saw what he did today, they’re very lucky, because they’ll wait a very long time before they see another one.”

And he was right – we’re still waiting for another Derby horse who is good enough to rival the great Boomerang.

2.  John Whitaker’s two veteran Derby winners

Three riders have matched Eddie Macken’s four Derby wins (though none have been in consecutive years or on the same horse) – Harvey Smith, and Michael and John Whitaker.

John’s second win came in 1998, when he finished top on the 21-year-old Gammon, who remains the oldest horse to win the Hickstead Derby. Two years later, John won on Welham, who was 20 and having what was his second attempt at the Hickstead Derby, having finished second in 1995. John and the 20-year-old gelding joined Rob Hoekstra (Lionel) and Tim Stockdale (Wiston Bridget) in a three-way jump-off, with the veteran gelding netting the fastest time to give John his third Derby title. 

3.  Buddy Bunn makes Douglas’ dream come true 

John’s fourth win came in 2004 on board a catch ride called Buddy Bunn. The horse was homebred by the founder of the All England Jumping Course, Douglas Bunn, and was originally ridden by his daughter Chloe (now Breen). However, with Chloe busy with her studies, the ride passed to William Funnell, a great friend of the Bunn family.

Douglas had never owned a Derby winner, and William was very much looking forward to the ride on Buddy Bunn in Hickstead’s best-known class. However, the rider aggravated a groin strain during the Derby meeting, and John Whitaker was asked to take on the ride for the Derby.

John, a legendary horseman, sat on Buddy Bunn for the first time the day before the class, then proceeded to jump a perfect clear round in the Derby itself. He then repeated the feat in the jump-off, beating his then 18-year-old niece Ellen Whitaker into second place on Locarno.

4. The pony who cleared the Derby course three times

Perhaps the most incredible Derby winner of all was Stroller, Marion Coakes’ (later Marion Mould) little 14.2hh gelding who rose up through the ranks from pony competitions to winning an Olympic silver medal.

The hugely popular combination of Marion and Stroller jumped three clears round the Derby course, yet only won the class on one of those occasions, in 1967. That year, the pair stumbled while descending the Derby bank and slid down at an angle, and it took all of Stroller’s remarkable agility to clear the rails at the bottom of the bank. Marion was 20 years old at the time, and she remains the youngest Derby winner of all.

5. A year full of dramas

The Derby has a rich and vivid past, but one year that saw a number of dramatic stories come to the fore was 1963, the third running of the class at Hickstead. There were no clears that year, although David Broome and Mister Softee left all the fences standing but slipped and fell on the flat. It also saw the great Ted Edgar jump round one-handed, having hurt an arm in a schooling accident that left him in a sling. 

Four riders went through to the jump-off, with Nelson Pessoa and Gran Geste winning. Not that the Brazilian could receive his trophy, as it has been stolen from a shop window in central London before the class!

That year saw the first of three wins for Nelson – he won again on Grand Geste in 1965, then had to wait an incredible 31 years for his third win, which came in 1996 on the 19-year-old Loro Piana Vivaldi. By then, Nelson was 60 years old and had suffered a heart attack the previous November. Wearing a heart monitor to ensure his heart rate didn’t get too high, he proceeded to jump round the Derby course to end on four faults and take home the title. 

6. Don’t bank on it

The Hickstead Derby is often remembered for its thrills and spills as well as its heroes and heroines. The most famous fence of all is the Derby bank, with its 10ft 6in slope leading down to a 1.60m rails just two strides from the bank, and it’s certainly caused some upsets over the years. Perhaps the most dramatic descents came from Annette Lewis and Tutein, who jumped straight off the top of the bank in 1985, while Axel Wockener managed to come down the bank backwards in 1976 on his horse Glasgow.

7.  Harvey Smith's V-Sign

Probably the best-known moment in Hickstead’s history was when a certain Harvey Smith put two fingers up at the showjumping establishment and made it in to every newspaper in the land.

Having won the Hickstead Derby in 1970 on Mattie Brown, Harvey returned the following year without bringing back the trophy. He claimed to have forgotten it, but Douglas Bunn felt that Harvey was arrogantly assuming he would repeat his win.

After winning the jump-off against Steven Hadley, Harvey cantered through the finish, circled and then flicked a V-sign towards the directors’ box, an act that was caught by the television cameras. He later said he was making a ‘V for Victory sign’, but the organisers were having none of it – Harvey was disqualified and his first prize of £2,000 was removed. Eventually the matter was referred to the British Show Jumping Association, and the title and prizemoney were reinstated. 

8. Off to a good start

In 2012, Paul Beecher and Loughnatousa WB became the only horse to win on a clear round from the number one draw.

Having picked up 16 faults in their first attempt the year previously, Paul and ‘WB’ were not expected to trouble the leaders the following year, but they duly produced a text book clear. For a while it looked like no one else was going to go clear, until William Funnell and Dorada joined them in a jump-off. But William picked up four faults, giving victory to Irishman Paul, who had been convinced since WB was a young horse that he would be the one to make his career.

9. Girl power

Only two mares have won the Hickstead Derby in its 54-year history. The first to win the title was John Popely’s Bluebird, who was having her fifth attempt in the class in 1996. She was joined soon after by Corrada, who didn't touch a pole during any of her three wins (2001-2003) with Peter Charles - although she did get time faults in 2001 for starting 3sec late.

10. Three of the best

As mentioned earlier, once a horse has won the Derby it is quite likely it will repeat its feat. Three horses have each won the Derby three times: Monsanta (1991-1993) with Michael Whitaker, Corrada (as outlined above), and Cortaflex Mondriaan, who won for William Funnell in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

Mondriaan was retired from international competition in 2011, and was paraded at Hickstead for one final time. Out of his three Derby victories, William nominated the final win as the highlight.

“It was shortly after Douglas had died, and it was almost like it was destiny for me to win that day,” says William. “I knew I needed a clear round, and I could almost hear Douglas saying to me ‘Come on! Don’t mess it up!’ For some reason, it just felt as if it was going to happen for me, and Mondriaan jumped brilliantly that day. He made it feel easy.”

This article was first published in May 2014.

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