A cool guy

Victoria Spicer chats to Guy Williams, the winner of the 2015 British Speed Derby, about setting records and why Hickstead will always be special to him

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It’s somewhat fitting that a rider who is renowned for being so cool-headed yet devastatingly quick should become the undisputed champion of the British Speed Derby at Hickstead.

When Guy Williams won the class last summer, it was the fourth time he had done so – a record no other rider has matched in the 28-year history of the class. Not only that, but Guy also broke the course record for the fastest time, a record that Shane Breen set in 2008.

But Guy doesn’t spend much time considering records, and certainly didn’t worry about whether he could become the rider with the most wins in the history of this class. “I didn’t really think about it to be honest,” he says. As for the course record, he went blisteringly quick because he had to if he was to beat Harriet Nuttall and the exceptionally nippy Silver Lift, who had held the lead.

“I knew Harriet was very quick, so I went in there to beat her, not the course record,” he adds.

Harriet and her 10-year-old grey gelding had gone so quickly that, even with a fence down and a 4sec penalty adding to their time, they crossed the finish line in 92.38sec – a time that had looked pretty impossible to better. But the 4sec penalty proved costly when Guy, the penultimate rider to go, rode into the ring on his 2014 victor Casper De Muze.

Guy needed to go quickly, but he also needed to leave every fence standing. Showing every inch of his determination and years of experience, Guy produced a relentlessly quick clear in 91.95sec to shave less than half a second of Harriet’s time and claim the €8,000 first prize.

“Casper is unbelievably fast,” says Guy. “You have to take chances in the Speed Derby, and there are strides you can take out – but it’s very difficult to win it with a fence down. But I had a good draw – only Belinka VH Overlede Goed was after me, a horse who I’ve ridden before in the Speed Derby, so I knew I could win it again, and in the end I was lucky on the day.”

While the Derby is the most famous class at this meeting, the British Speed Derby is close behind its larger cousin in terms of popularity and audience reaction. “It’s a ranking class, so it’s a good one to win at Hickstead, plus the public like it because it’s fast and furious to watch,” Guy adds.  

After his victory in 2014 Guy said he knew he would win – and you can forgive him for being overconfident, especially given the fact he returned last year and repeated the feat. Casper De Muze has won plenty of international Grands Prix and World Ranking classes, and just happens to be rather good at Speed classes, so the height certainly doesn’t tax him. He’s bold and brave, and maintains a relentless rhythm around the lengthy course. Partnered with Guy, who has so many international victories to his name, they make a pretty formidable pairing.

Guy has ridden in the Speed Derby dozens of times, and knows every inch of the course. His first win came courtesy of the mare Be Precise in 2002, and the pair repeated their victory in 2004.  “The first few years I competed in the Speed Derby would re-watch videos before the class, but now I know how I’m going to approach it, I know what strides I’ll be taking where,” he says.

Many of Hickstead’s permanent obstacles are included in the course, such as the road crossing, the Irish bank and the less steep side of the Derby bank, but there’s only one particular fence that Guy prepares for in the Speed Derby – the towering Hickstead planks that hang above a road traffic cone and otherwise empty chasm of space below. “In training I’ll practise over the planks. At the end of the course the horses get tired, and they might run at them – as well as a quick horse, you need to have a good Derby horse as well,” he says.

Guy is still weighing up whether Casper will jump in the Equestrian.com Derby itself, or whether he will wait for another year, and says it depends on a few things. Certainly he already has a proven contender in Depardieu Van T Kiezelhof, the grey gelding who came seventh last year with an impressive round in the Derby, finishing on just eight faults. Depardieu also won the Bunn Leisure Derby Tankard at Hickstead, clearly showing a liking for Hickstead’s famous fences and wide open spaces.

Casper, meanwhile, proved his versatility when winning the Hickstead Master’s Challenge – a class named after the All England Jumping Course’s founder Douglas Bunn – which involves a timed course of jumps followed by a series of gates of ascending height. There were seven international classes at last year’s Equestrian.com Hickstead Derby Meeting, and Guy won three of them.

It’s now six years since Guy claimed the Hickstead Derby title with Skip Two Ramiro, in what was the 50th anniversary of the class. Both Guy and Tina Fletcher had jumped clear in the first round, leading to a jump-off. Tina was first to go on Promised Land, and – knowing Guy was always going to be far quicker – went for a steady clear round. Guy and Skippy duly jumped another clear and finished 16sec quicker.

‘Skippy’ has a remarkable record in the Derby, having been placed nearly every year he took part. Last year was the gelding’s final Derby attempt, and now he is semi-retired and living a gentler life with showjumper Nicky Boulter’s mum.

“He was an amazing Derby horse,” says Guy. “I first rode when he was a seven-year-old, and I knew then he could one day win the Derby. The Derby was a class I’d always watched on TV, and I’d hoped to win one year, then I finally did it.”

Hickstead will always be a special showground to Guy – it was his closest major show when he was based in Canterbury in Kent for many years. Though he moved to Normandy in France 18 months ago with his wife Rebecca, and their two children, Maisie and George, Guy still makes sure the Equestrian.com Derby Meeting and Longines Royal International Horse Show remain on his calendar.

“I’m good friends with the Bunn family, and I like coming back to Hickstead,” he says. “I love it here, the kids love it – and at the end of the day I’m English, so I like competing in front of a home crowd.”

Given the reaction from the stands after Guy’s recent Speed Derby wins, it seems the feeling is more than mutual.

This article first appeared in June 2016

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