A Hickstead first

In 2013, Paul Beecher became the first person to produce a clear round having been drawn first to go in the Hickstead Derby, then go on to win the class. Victoria Spicer spoke to him about his achievement.

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It had never been done before. While the photographers were still figuring out the best spots to take their pictures and the crowds had just settled into their seats, the first combination to go in the Hickstead Derby came into the International Arena and nonchalantly proceeded to jump a perfect clear round.

That pair was Loughnatousa WB and Paul Beecher, who had picked up 16 faults in their first Hickstead Derby attempt, and this year they'd been drawn in the position riders fear most. They were hardly the bookmakers' favourites to win, but in the Derby, there's no such thing as a certainty. Nor had Paul gone into the arena expecting to win. "I remember walking the Derby course, and even though I'd been the year before, the second time it seemed even bigger," recalls Irish rider Paul Beecher. "The previous year he jumped the first fence and really looked at the crowd and got distracted, but last year he knew what was ahead of him. Our round got off to a very good start, straight away he felt balanced and like he was concentrating."

Their round went smoothly until they slipped coming off the bank, landing a bit awkwardly. "He showed tremendous power to make up the two strides to clear the upright," Paul says. "Then there was the Devils' Dyke, the fence that forever stands out as the trickiest to ride, but the Gods were looking down at me that day, and WB jumped it fantastic. But not for one minute did I think he would go clear, not until I jumped the last fence."

For a long time, it looked like the pair was going to produce the only clear of the competition, with seven riders collecting four faults while another eight knocked down two fences apiece. "I watched about 10 riders go and it nearly killed me," Paul adds. "Every round felt like it took half an hour. But all credit to Hickstead as the ground was fantastic, and I knew someone else would go clear." He was right. Former three-time winner William Funnell came in on Dorada to jump clear to take it to a jump-off. But Paul kept his cool. "I just went in there with the aim of redoing what I did the first time, and I was confident that, if I rode as well as I did in the first round, he'd deliver again. In fact, he was probably even better in the second round."

With the pressure on, William and Dorada then scored four faults and the prize went to Paul and Loughnatousa WB. "Words can't describe it. All my life, the two big events that everybody knew about were Hickstead and the Grand National. So to even take part was a childhood dream, let alone to win."

He returned to his native Ireland a conquering hero. "It was all a whirlwind. We had a big party back here, and when word got back that I'd won, it was like winning the Olympics. Everyone knows how hard it is to go clear in the Hickstead Derby." Right from the start Paul knew that WB was special. "When he was a young horse, I knew he would be the one to make or break my career," he adds.

The chestnut was bred by well-known Irish veterinary surgeon and breeder Walter B Connors (whose initials give him his WB name) - he is by his stallion, Spring Elegance VII, out of a mare from the Beecher family's Loughnatousa Stud in Co Waterford. Walter, a close relative of top Irish showjumper, Francis Connors, sent the horse to the Beechers when he was three, and retained a third share until 2010, when he was bought by Patricia Brown and brought over to England, where he was stabled at Bernice Cuthbert's Aston Park Stud in Oxfordshire.

"You couldn't have found a better specimen of a horse - he was a real old-fashioned quality Thoroughbred type," recalls Bernice. I knew from the moment he set foot on the place that he was a Derby horse, through and through."

While stable jockey Michael Lonsdale trained the horse at home, WB was competed for a time by a couple of international riders, including Hickstead's own Shane Breen and Hertfordshire-based Phillip Miller. "I remember Phillip came joint third on him in the HOYS Puissance in 2010, which was the horse's first big achievement. Things started to change after that - until then he always seemed to have about three fences down per class!"

With owner Patricia living locally and keen to target shows such as Hickstead and Windsor, Paul Beecher was then given the ride, travelling over from Ireland each time to compete. But after a few years the pressure of travel was taking its toll, with a yard full of horses to ride and hunt at home, and before last summer's Derby Paul already knew it would be the final time he'd ride WB. But what a way to bow out.

"I was watching from the press seats with Michael Lonsdale, and I kept leaping up and shrieking," says Bernice. "I remember when he slipped down the bank, landed in a heap and disappeared from view, but still jumped the upright. Paul was amazing, he's a great hunting man and that was a typical hunting recovery. It was one of those unique rounds, with no bad luck, where everything went our way."

Even though it made it more nerve-wracking for owner Patricia and the team, they weren't disappointed to see William Funnell go clear. "It was more exciting to have a jump-off, and WB went back in and proved it wasn't a fluke first time round," says Bernice, who has ridden round Badminton and has racehorses, pointers, showjumpers and event horses at her yard.

Though the pressure was on Michael Lonsdale, having taken over the ride on such a successful horse, the horse continued his winning ways with a superb victory with Michael in the Alltech Puissance at HOYS in October 2012, clearing 7ft 2in to share first prize with Peter Murphy. Bernice speaks fondly of the superstar jumper who has brought them all so much success and enjoyment. "He's a pet in the stable, a two-year-old child could handle him, but out of the stable he's a different matter - he's big and powerful, but very intelligent and easy to teach," she says. Michael agrees. "WB likes to have a big say in things when you're riding him," says Michael. "I always remember Paul saying to me 'When you click with a horse, he'll jump the moon for you, but you have to click with him first."

The pair obviously has done just that, picking up good results in Area International Trials and Grand Prix classes. Now the main aim is this year's Derby. "We're having sleepless nights about it already!" laughs Bernice.

Michael may not have jumped round the Hickstead Derby, but he did win in the International Arena in September when he won the Douglas Bunn 1.35m Challenge on Loughnatousa OB. This new class includes several Derby fences at a smaller height - forming the perfect introduction for future Derby stars. "At least I have an idea of what it's like coming to the Dyke and jumping the double of waters," says Michael. "I'm trying not to think about it too much - everyone is nervous about riding in the Derby. It's my first time, but people will be looking at the horse with expectations." They definitely won't be drawn first this year, but can this first timer ride Loughnatousa WB to a second Hickstead Derby? Well as last year reminded us, anything can happen.

This article was first published in June 2013.

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