Eight great Derby rivalries

There have been some amazing clashes in the 56 years of the Hickstead Derby. Pippa Cuckson takes a look at some of the great rivalries over the years...

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Nelson Pessoa and the fairer sex

Alison Westwood (now Dawes) was the first rider to negotiate the brand new Bank, in 1961, the year before the Derby was launched. She went on to win in 1968 and 1973 with The Maverick, aka Mr Banbury.

Women might have dominated even more of the earliest contests but for the untimely appearance of a certain charismatic Brazilian. After settling in Europe, the young Nelson Pessoa was so successful the FEI even changed its rules affecting the participation of foreign nationals in a failed attempt to clip his wings!

“Neco” arrived at Hickstead in 1963, fresh from consecutive Hamburg Derby wins. Although his pint-sized Gran Geste lowered the rails atop the bank, Pessoa made no mistake in the four-way jump-off, beating Pat Pharazyn, Anneli Drummond-Hay and Sheila Barnes. Two years later, Gran Geste shut the door on two more lady riders - Diana Connolly-Carew and Kathy Kusner. Neco returned with Vivaldi for a third win in 1996, beating another Derby legend, John Ledingham.

Marion Coakes and David Broome

Marion and Stroller jumped three incredible Derby clears – taking Seamus Hayes to a jump-off in 1964 when Marion was just 17 – and finished in the frame five times, but won just once. Mister Softee made Stroller settle for equal second in 1966, the year that David Broome’s three-time European champion also clinched the King George V Gold Cup and the prestigious Olympic Trial staged in those days at British Timken. But Marion’s wonder pony turned the tables in 1967. Mister Softee had romped home in the Trial two days earlier, but on the big day only Stroller left up all the poles. It wasn’t 100% stylish and he nearly “missed” at the Derby Bank. Marion believes Stroller never really liked the Bank. “It felt like an extremely bumpy toboggan ride on stilts!” she said.

Harvey Smith and Douglas Bunn

The most notorious Derby confrontation occurred off the field - following Harvey Smith’s “two-fingers” on his 1971 victory gallop, which made national news headlines for weeks. Harvey had been so confident that Mattie Brown would win for a second successive year that he defied the instructions of Hickstead supremo Douglas Bunn by leaving the trophy at home in Yorkshire. This caused some back-stage angst between the two otherwise close pals.

Douglas hadn’t witnessed the “victory” gesture but, hearing of it later from a judge and watching a re-run on TV, he forfeited Harvey’s £2,000 prize. Harvey meanwhile insisted he was merely copying Churchill’s wartime V-for-Victory salute. The prize was finally reinstated by a BSJA stewards hearing in London. Harvey said decades later: “Douglas was the best man in the world at getting advertising. It was good for the whole sport, which needs something like that now to shake things up a bit!”

John Ledingham and John Whitaker

John Whitaker won his first Derby in 1983, with Ryan’s Son, and Irish army captain John Ledingham scored his in 1984 riding Gabhran. Both then waited a decade for further success. John L won in 1994 with Kilbaha, and then again after jumping-off in 1995 with John W, on the veteran Gammon.

Already second three times, Gammon saved his best till last, trouncing Kilbaha in an even speedier two-way in 1998. Beating his previous time by six seconds, the 21-years-young Gammon flicked out part of the Dyke. But in setting off quickly, Kilbaha slipped on taking off at the first and could never quite catch up. John W, of course, was to win two more, with Welham (2000) and catch-ride Buddy Bunn (2004).

Nick Skelton and Joe Turi

From 1987, Nick and Apollo enjoyed three consecutive wins and a near-miss – the heat was turned up a notch each year by Joe Turi, the trick-rider who jumped off the back of a circus lorry while touring Britain to seek asylum from communist Hungary. In 1988, Apollo won outright, but Joe’s rides Kruger and Vital were among seven on eight faults.

In 1989, Joe won the Speed Derby with Mill Ruby - and Nick now faced the on-form Turi riding Kruger in the jump-off for the real thing. Nick still triumphed. "Apollo was so brave, and he knew the course - he was headstrong, but easy to ride round there," he said.

But by 1990 Joe had produced Vital feeling fresh; the stallion had had time out for stud duties and this was his first show back. Their jump-off sizzler denied Nick the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with Eddie Macken and Boomerang’s consecutive four wins.

William Funnell and Geoff Billington

Derby specialist Will Funnell won in 2006 on Mondriaan, who had bounced back from colic surgery as well as claiming the Trial that year. They also scored in 2008 and 2009, with the Derby’s landmark 50th clear round. But in between, Geoff Billington won on Cassabachus, and also twice took Mondriaan to the wire. In 2006 Geoff jumped-off against Will and other four-faulters, finishing third on the grey that had restored this great character to the competitive spotlight following the retirement of It’s Otto. Then, in 2007, the Derby was stricken by heavy rain. Only Cassabachus seemed able to skip round the Hickstead mud-bath, with a single, winning time-fault.

In 2008, Mondriaan return to the start-list. With no clears, Funnell and Billington found themselves in a four-faulters’ finale. Will jumped-off first. Noting that Cassabachus had had four down in the Trial, he scented his opponent’s vulnerability and set off for a steady clear. His tactic worked; an under pressure Cassabachus flicked out the planks at fence eight and Mondriaan’s third win was instantly sealed.

Guy Williams and Tina Fletcher

In 2010 Guy, who spent his childhood jumping in Hickstead’s “back rings,” prevented Tina becoming the first lady winner since 1973 after forcing her to jump-off with his last-to-go clear on Skip Two Ramiro. Tina was “gutted,” for she had drained all resources to coax round her wayward ride; fate would surely conspire to prevent the same achievement again with the bounding Promised Land.

But in 2011, with Ramiro on eight faults, Promised Land (also fourth in 2009) finally delivered, despite giving Tina – and spectators - the proverbial white-knuckle experience.

Guy’s attention to detail had included training over a replica Devil’s Dyke at home. In contrast, Promised Land was taken straight out of the field and hardly ridden between shows. Tina had once told husband Graham: “I don’t know why you’re keeping that horse. He’s a lunatic.

Trevor Breen and Phillip Miller

Trevor riding the one-eyed Adventure de Kannan, Philip, the pupil who loved his first riding school so much that he never left: two amazing personal stories in 12 months and, justly, both were to earn many headlines. Philip experienced a Derby ‘baptism by fire’ in 2012 when Caritiar Z faulted at the Devil’s Dyke and exceeded the time allowed. Next year he made no mistake, towering above his rivals in a contest which saw 50% of the field retire or incur elimination. Philip cannot, though, have failed to spot the impressive return from surgery of Adventure de Kannan, second in the Trial at that same meeting. Shrugging off his “disability,” the Irishman’s horse stepped up in 2014 to prevail by 0.02secs in a thrilling head-to-head against the defending champions.

This feature first appeared in 2015.

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