Miller's tale

Victoria Spicer meets Phillip Miller, winner of the 2013 Hickstead Derby, to talk about his rise from riding school lessons to Hickstead champion. 

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It sounds like something out of a Pullein-Thompson novel. A six-year-old boy from a non-horsey family turns up one day to his local riding school, an old-fashioned establishment where children are led around paddocks on little ponies. Initially he’s wary of jumping, but he sticks with the lessons and in time is given a pony of his own. Eventually he catches the eye of the yard’s owners, and later he works there full-time and starts to compete their showjumpers.

He ends up riding in the young riders’ final at Olympia on a part-bred Welsh cob bought from Southwell market. The story progresses and the years pass, until the inevitable fairy tale ending, when he partners a stunning grey horse – the sort of equine who adorns the walls of every pony mad little girl – to win the most iconic class in British showjumping, the Hickstead Derby.  

But this is not fiction and Phillip Miller’s story is far from over. His is not a tale of overnight sensation, but of a slow climb up the ranks, from stable boy to stable jockey, from a producer of top horses for others, to his own success on the national circuit. Most recently there’s the breakthrough into international competition, team selection, and of course a certain win in Hickstead’s famous class.

The win came on Caritiar Z, the grey gelding who has been a major part of Phillip’s recent success. Having said for years that he would never jump in the Derby, that he loved watching other people in it but had no inclination to tackle the course himself, people kept telling him to have a go on ‘Carter’ and eventually Phillip agreed to have a go.

“I’d never even been up bank before and I remember doing an interview with Suzanne Dando-Reynolds for Sky Sports before the Derby,” he says. “We were walking along the bank when I looked down over the edge for the first time and said, that’s ridiculous! I don’t think you understand how steep it is until you look straight down.”

But Carter took it all in his stride. “The first time down the bank he had a bit of a look at the top – that’s probably why we got time faults – but he just sussed out what to do and crept slowly down it. He figured it out for himself.” They completed the round with just one fence down – the first part of the Devil’s Dyke – and two time penalties, finishing in a creditable ninth place. But Phillip didn’t predict that he’d come back 12 months later and produce the sole clear round.

“I didn’t expect to win,” says Phillip, modestly. “I was just hoping I’d have a good round as he’d jumped well the previous year, so I knew he was capable of it.” So was he worried about any fences in particular? “All of them! It’s all daunting. You can’t canter up to any of the fences thinking they’re easy. I’d had the first part of the Dyke on our first attempt, and if you make one mistake down the bank you could end up in a heap at the bottom.”

But once he’d cleared the Dyke, his nemesis from the previous year, he knew that the elusive clear was within reach. “It’s not like the hard part is over, but you start to think you could be on for a very good round. You can’t relax at that point, you still have to concentrate and not make a mistake. That’s the worst thing, if you’re clear past the dyke and then you go and do something stupid.”

With just two fences to go, he heard a whistling from the crowd and he glanced at the clock. “I didn’t want to get time faults like I had the year before, and though I felt I was up a pace, I just remember coming to the last, aiming straight for a post, setting him up and just going for it. When we cleared it, the noise from the crowd was unbelievable.”

He then had a nervous wait while the next 12 riders went in. “There were a number of good ones after me, including Trevor Breen, Tina Fletcher, Guy Williams, and Michael Lonsdale on the previous year’s winner, Loughnatousa WB. Several previous Derby winners, and horses you knew could jump clear. I was praying that I’d be the only clear round, but with three to go I went to warm up just in case. Then there was only Tina to go, and I was walking round the collecting ring, when I heard the crowd sigh and the buzzer went off – she’d fallen at the bottom of the bank – and that was it. I’d won.”

Even as he was presented with the Boomerang Trophy from another Derby legend, the great Harvey Smith, it still didn’t sink in that Phillip had done it. “I almost felt like I shouldn’t be there. When you’re a kid, watching on television, you see people like Harvey or John Whitaker win the Derby. To win the Derby, to jump clear over the same course as those riders had and to achieve the same thing – it’s unimaginable.”

But there was no time for basking in the glory. That evening Phillip headed home to Greenacres Equestrian, the same riding school he’d first learned to ride at more than 30 years previously, and the next day it was business as usual when he was out jumping at Weston Lawns, where he duly qualified for the Foxhunter final.

Owned by Di Cornish and her daughter Pennie, Greenacres in Hertfordshire is now one of the biggest riding schools in the country with extensive facilities and more than 160 horses, with liveries, youngstock and top class showjumpers alongside the school horses and ponies.

Di and Pennie – who co-own Caritiar Z with Nigel Eccles – have been instrumental to Phillip’s career. They taught Phillip to ride, his first pony was a former showjumper of Pennie’s, and when he left school he became her stable jockey, hacking out her Grade A horses and later producing the novices. The Cornishes also breed top class showjumpers, and Phillip helped produce some of the most successful horses in recent years, including Talan and Je T'aime Flamenco. After Pennie had children, Phillip stepped up and did more of the competing. So how did they feel when he won the Derby? “Pennie was very emotional, not that she’d ever admit it! She doesn’t show a lot of emotion normally but she did that day. And Di was ecstatic,” Phillip adds.

The £36,500 first prize in the Derby was later divvied up between the team, with Phillip opting to spend his ‘Christmas bonus’ on a rather unusual treat. “I bought a blue and gold macaw parrot called Peggy,” he grins. “She’s seven months old and she’s beautiful. She’s learning to talk and I free fly her in the indoor school.”

It wouldn’t be the first thing most showjumpers would buy with their prizemoney, but Phillip adores his menagerie – he has birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and even a house pig. He lives at home with Pennie, her partner and their children, and prefers being at home to anywhere else. “Pennie’s kids are seven and five now, and I’d rather stay with them, they’re such fun,” he says.

He’s still as grounded as ever, though a few things have changed since his Hickstead win. New sponsors have started to come on board, and he’s had messages from countless well-wishers and people who follow his and Carter’s careers. “I did a signing at HOYS the year before I won the Derby and about four people turned up,” he laughs. “The next year, straight after my Derby win, I did a signing session at the Royal International and there was a queue of people waiting!”

Phillip now has a string of eight showjumpers, including Carter, Basic, Textback, Very Versace and some up-and-coming rides. Each year a new crop of foals arrive, and the Cornishes also buy three-year-olds to back and produce. Alongside Phillip, there are two stable jockeys at Greenacres, Ben Walker and Lucy Palmer, who each have their own horses to ride as well as providing back-up when Phillip is competing abroad. Having been a major force on the national circuit for several years, he was selected for his first FEI Nations Cup team at Lummen in 2013, and he’s ridden on the Spanish Sunshine Tour for the past few years, which he explains is great for setting horses up for the season.

Carter is still his top horse, but he has a promising eight-year-old called Basic who he thinks will one day take over as his first string, and could be a potential championship horse in the future. “Carter is the type who could potentially come out and jump clear in another five Derbies. He does speed classes, Grands Prix and even Puissances. He’s brave, but he has a brain with it,” says Phillip.

Watching the pair float round last year’s Derby course, it’s hard to imagine that the grey was ever a bit of a handful. But before he was gelded, Carter was unmanageable at times, easily distracted by mares and prone to taking aversions to other stallions – especially Talan, the Cornishes’ stallion who was later ridden by Robert Smith. Carter was gelded at eight but even then things didn’t improve. “It took a year or so to get it out of his system. I started taking him to county shows as an eight-year-old and he was still so badly behaved that I wondered what the point in cutting him was! But then he just relaxed and became straightforward,” Phillip explains.

He’s not without his quirks though. “In the ring he spooks horrendously, at flower pots, a gap in the fence, anything – but as soon as the bell goes he stops and concentrates. If you’re in the stable and his door his open, he’ll creep towards it, determined to at least stick a foot out the door. He’s always in your face, I think he knows he’s the top horse. The week after the Derby we went to Norfork and did the Stairway class and he went up to the ring like he was God. He won the class and was standing there like he owned the place. If he was human he’d be a right arrogant pig.”

The plan for Carter is to go to a few shows before coming back for another crack at this year’s Equestrian.com Derby. “I’ll be a wreck for this year’s Derby,” says Phillip. “It would be amazing to win it for a second time. If it did happen again, people might start talking about Eddie Macken’s record of four wins.” He smiles. “Maybe could get rid of the Boomerang Trophy and replace it with the Carter trophy?”

It certainly has a ring to it. It seems like the next chapter in Phillip and Caritiar Z’s story is only just getting started. 

This article first appeared in June 2014

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