The best of the best

Equestrian journalist Charlotte Ricca-Smith asks Hickstead Derby winners to name the performance - apart from their own! - that impressed them most. 

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It's been more than five decades since Douglas Bunn founded the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead, and held the first ever British Jumping Derby. Yet in that time, the challenging course has barely changed.

Alongside the frankly terrifying 10ft 6in Derby Bank, there is the tricky Devil's Dyke, appropriately named after a local valley that is steep and deep, the titanic 15ft water, and 13 other tough fences designed to test the most talented horse and rider. "What makes the event so fantastic is that it's not what modern showjumpers do nowadays, so it's quite unique," says Rob Hoekstra, performance manager for British Showjumping. "As well as the severity of the course to cope with, it's also very long.

There are so many emotional things that happen during a round - and you can run into a problem anywhere." To win this class is every showjumper's ambition, and the general public love to watch the world's best battle it out for the coveted Boomerang Trophy. During its 53 year history, 29 riders have taken the title, and we asked a few of those victors who they thought provided the most exciting and most memorable Derby win - aside from their own, of course!

A fantastic round

Rob Hoekstra, who used to travel from Holland every year as a young boy to watch his favourite competition, won the Derby in 1999 riding Lionel II. "It was a lifetime ambition to ride in it, never mind win it, so it was a fantastic feeling," said Rob, who switched from Dutch to British nationality in 1987. "The European Championships were on at the same time so it was a good field, but we were the only clear round." Since becoming the Team GB Showjumping Performance Manager in 2010, Rob has had the pleasure of working with Britain's top equestrians. However, it was one young rider's performance in the Derby that sticks out most in his mind. "Ben Maher's win in 2005 was very good," says Rob. "He was only 22, so it was just at the beginning of his career, but he rode a fantastic round." Ben and Tim Stockdale both had one down in the first round, but Ben rode a clear in the jump-off to win the class. "Ben was always a very professional guy when he was younger, and was always looking for education and training to improve himself - and still is now," says Rob. "It always looked like he would make it to the top of the sport and now he is one of my main team riders."

Record breaker

William Funnell won the Derby three times riding Mondriaan, nearly matching his idol Eddie Macken's record of four consecutive wins from 1976 to 1979. Sure enough, it's Eddie's wins that stand out the most to him today. "I was jumping in ponies at the time and that fourth win with Boomerang, when he got to keep the trophy, really set me wanting to win the Derby," says William. "It always stuck in my mind - it was very wet that year and I remember the horse being covered in mud at the end. Since then it has always been an ambition of mine to win it." William came second and third a few times, but says it felt like it was "never going to happen". Then, in 2006, he finally won it - and repeated the feat a further two times. Wet weather seems to be a recurring theme for William, as the year after his first win, the soft going didn't suit Mondriaan and they came fourth, while Geoff Billington enjoyed his first win. Will then achieved back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009, but didn't get the chance to have another crack at Eddie's record, as Mondriaan was retired aged 17 following colic surgery, parading one last time in the International Arena. "He's still fit and well now," says William. "Sometimes I see him trotting around and I think I retired him too early! His owner Julie Slade still jumps him and has a bit of fun with him, and he even competed in Hickstead's outside arenas last year."

Joy and emotion

What is one rider's misery is another's moment of glory, and for Geoff Billington winning the Hickstead Derby for the first time, at the grand old age of 52, was something he had waited a very long time for. It is for this reason, that fellow Derby winner Tina Fletcher cites Geoff's win as the one she remembers most fondly, back in 2007. Geoff and Cassabachus jumped the only clear round that year, which meant that despite gaining one time fault, victory was theirs. "His complete delight at finally winning really showed through," says Tina. "You could see the joy and emotion he was going through and what winning meant to him. Geoff's a good friend of ours so to see him so thrilled was a great moment." Tina's own win on Promised Land in 2011 was a mixture of "relief and joy" that she had "got the job done", as the year before the pair jumped a double clear but still only came second, behind Guy Williams and Skip Two Ramiro. Tina was the first woman to win the class since Alison Dawes in 1973, who also won it five years earlier as Alison Westwood. "I hope to be back again this year with Promised Land," says Tina. "He had more than a year and half off due to a slight injury, then I was away competing in Rotterdam during the last Derby, and then I injured myself falling from Hello Sailor at the beginning of the year. He's done two shows now, so as long as he's ok, we will be there."

Three in a row

The year that Tina came so close was Guy Williams' year of glory. According to Guy, he had always planned to win the class on Skip Two Ramiro, but somehow it never quite came off. Then, in 2010, the pair not only jumped a double clear, but managed such a fast jump-off time that they won it with 16 seconds to spare. "It felt great to finally win it because I'd solely concentrated on that class with Skip Two Ramiro," says Guy. "He was a good Derby horse, and I've grown up going to Hickstead, so it's a class I've always wanted to win. I used to ride for Dougie and I'm friends with the family. It's a very special place for me." Guy has never missed the Derby - whether as a spectator as a child or as a competitor - and there is one rider that stands out over all the others he's seen conquer the class over the years. "I've watched Peter Charles win it three times with Corrada - she was a good mare," says Guy. "The last time he did it, Peter told me he knew he was going to win it. I admire someone like that, with so much confidence and self-belief. To say you're going to win a class and then do just that is pretty impressive. He was my hero, really, as he won it before I did and I learnt a few things watching him."

V for victory

Showjumping legend John Whitaker knows a thing or two about jumping a Derby course. He first won Hickstead's version in 1984, riding the unlikely showjumper Ryan's Son and went on to claim victory three more times, with Gammon in 1998, Welham in 2000 and Buddy Bunn in 2004. "To win once is an achievement, so I'm lucky to have won it four times," says John in a typically matter-of-fact way. Few would agree that luck comes into play when John is riding, but it did seem that fate was on his side when he won with Gammon, as the 21-year-old was brought out of semi-retirement for the class. "My daughter Louise was jumping him at the time, but I didn't have a Derby horse that year so a couple of days before the show, my wife said 'why not jump Gammon'?" John remembers. "He didn't go fantastically in the Derby Trial, but he felt fit, so I decided to go for it, and then we won it. It was a bit of a turn up really, and great for the family. That was a good day." While that Derby win stands out as John's personal favourite, it was Harvey Smith's 'V' for victory that made a real impression on him as a young boy, still in juniors. "It was a great win. Mattie Brown was good to watch as he was quite a small, chubby type of horse, so he didn't look like your average showjumper, which inspired me," says John, who acknowledged the similarity between Harvey's Derby winner and his own, Ryan's Son. "But I also remember that day because he gave the 'V' sign. Harvey was my hero back then. Apart from the fact that he was a Yorkshireman and came from a normal background like me, he did a lot for showjumping because he gave it publicity. He was a massive boost to the sport."

This article was first published in June 2012

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