The nation's favourites

Earlier this year, we asked you to vote for your favourite Derby-winning horses. Victoria Spicer counts down your top 10. 

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There have been some amazing stories in the 57-year history of the Hickstead Derby. Tales of victors young and old, of riders and horses who have won against the odds, or those who have won time and time again. Legends that live on for years.

But becoming a winner of the Derby is an exclusive club to join, and few showjumpers ever achieve it. Since the Derby was first held back in 1961, there have been just 39 horses to have won the class. As the records show consistently throughout the decades, once a horse has won the class he or she has a very good chance of repeating that feat.

But of these 39 horses, which stand out as the greatest of all? In the run-up to this year’s Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting, we polled more than 500 showjumping fans to find out who, of all the former horses to conquer the Derby course, they remember the most fondly – and here are the results.

 

10. Glenavadra Brilliant, William Whitaker

Winner in 2016

Last summer’s victory is obviously fresh in Hickstead fans’ minds, but William Whitaker’s aptly-named Glenavadra Brilliant truly deserves his place in this line-up of Derby greats. The 13-year-old Irish Sports Horse had been getting increasingly close to victory, finishing third with eight faults in 2014 and second with four faults in 2015 before finally netting that elusive clear 12 months ago (albeit with a single time fault).

When no one else could leave all the fences standing, William claimed the Boomerang Trophy for the first time – joining his famous uncles John and Michael Whitaker on the roll of honour. “Derby classes were always his strong point, so I knew if we got all our preparations right, and I rode him well, we’d stand a chance,” said William. 

 

9. Corrada, Peter Charles

Winner from 2001-2003

One of only two mares to win the Derby (both greys, incidentally), and the only one to gain a place in our top 10 of Derby greats, is Peter Charles’ Corrada. Corrada was an amazing Derby performer, winning three times in succession with clear rounds every time (minus the odd time fault in 2001!). 

The pair’s second victory, in 2002, saw them go into a jump-off against Robert Smith and Mr Springfield. Robert went first and went flat to the boards with the super-speedy Mr Springfield, hoping to put pressure on the reigning champions, but the tactic failed when they had three-down and Peter and Corrada once again pulled a clear out of the bag. “I told everyone I would win it, and the only way I wouldn't was if the rider took the wrong course,” said Peter. “That mare went in to that class and jumped clear, year in, year out. She was one of the best horses ever to jump round that course."

Along with Michael Whitaker’s ride Mon Santa, Corrada has a special place in Derby history for winning the Derby three years in a row – a record that has been bettered by just one horse…. 

 

8. Caritiar Z, Phillip Miller

Winner, 2013

The only clear round in 2013 came courtesy of this consistent Hickstead campaigner, who gave Phillip Miller his first win in the Derby. Caritiar Z and Phillip came very close to doing the double in 2014, only to lose out to Trevor Breen and Adventure De Kannan in the closest Derby jump-off ever, with Trevor winning by two-hundredths of a second. 

Phillip, who is stable jockey to Pennie Cornish, always loved watching the Hickstead Derby but had no desire to compete in it himself. Eventually he was persuaded to have a go with ‘Carter’, with the pair finishing ninth on their first attempt. A year later, they got the only clear round to claim victory. “I didn’t expect to win – I was just hoping I’d have a good round as he’d jumped well the previous year,” said a surprised Phillip afterwards. 

 

7. Skip Two Ramiro, Guy Williams

Winner, 2010

Not only did Skip Two Ramiro win Hickstead's most iconic class, he was also placed a number of times, finishing third in the Derby in 2008 and second in 2009 before finally giving Guy Williams the chance to lift the famous Boomerang Trophy in 2010. That year he jumped off for honours against Tina Fletcher and the scopey Promised Land, but Guy is known for being formidably quick against the clock, and the pair bettered Tina’s time by more than 15sec.

Chestnut gelding ‘Skippy’ then finished in the top 10 in the Derby for another three years running after his win, and retired following a final Derby attempt in 2015. Skippy died last autumn at the age of 20, but his name will always live on as one of the Derby greats. And for Guy, he will always be remembered for putting his name on the Boomerang Trophy, which he’d always wanted to win. “He made my dream come true,” said Williams. 

 

6. Cortaflex Mondriaan, William Funnell

Winner in 2006, 2008 and 2009

The handsome bay Mondriaan is one of just three horses to have won the Derby three times. William and Mondriaan’s first victory came in 2006, a win local boy William has described as meaning the most to him in his career because it was the realisation of a childhood ambition. They missed out when finishing fourth in 2007, when the heavy going didn’t suit the horse, but had back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009 to complete the hat-trick.

“The final win was shortly after Douglas had died, and it was almost like it was destiny for me to win that day,” said Funnell. “I knew I needed a clear round, and I could almost hear Douglas saying to me ‘Come on! Don’t mess it up!’ For some reason, it just felt as if it was going to happen for me, and Mondriaan jumped brilliantly that day. He made it feel easy.”

‘Danny’ is now 23 years old and enjoying an active retirement. In fact, William confessed recently that given half a chance, the horse would quite happily come back and have another crack at the Derby!

 

5. Kilbaha, Captain John Ledingham

Winner in 1994 and 1995

At five in our poll is the great Kilbaha, who carried Ireland’s Captain John Ledingham to victory two years running in 1994 and 1995 – and very nearly made it a hat-trick. The pair came to defend their title in 1996, and cleared all the most difficult sections of the course only to have the Derby Rails after the water and another fence down near the end of the course to leave them on eight faults, a score they replicated in 1997.

They were in with a good chance of winning again in 1998, but unfortunately Kilbaha slipped and hit the first fence, the Cornishman, a fence that rarely causes any trouble. They would have finished on four-faults and gone into a jump-off against eventual winners John Whitaker and Gammon, but for a costly pull at the last that added a time penalty to their tally. Had they won, it would have given Ledingham a record-equalling fourth win, having already won the Derby on Gabhran in 1984.

Kilbaha, an Irish Sports Horse gelding, was an exceptional athlete, representing Ireland on more than 30 Nations Cups as well as his two Derby victories. “He was not an indoor horse, he loved big open spaces and Hickstead was tailor-made for him,” said John Ledingham. “He was the best horse I’ve ever sat on.” 

 

4. Adventure De Kannan, Trevor Breen

Winner, 2014

The third horse in our countdown to have followed the pattern of finishing third, second and then finally winning the Derby (along with Glenavadra Brilliant and Skip Two Ramiro). But Adventure De Kannan stands out in a league of his own as the only one-eyed horse to win the Derby.

‘Addy’ and Trevor had an exceptional partnership and an unrivalled record in Hickstead’s big classes. They had already won the Eventing Grand Prix, the British Speed Derby and the All England Grand Prix but the Derby itself kept eluding them. But the horse’s fan base kept growing every time he overcame adversity – the operation to remove his right eye just weeks before his Derby attempt in 2013; the minor tendon injury ahead of their eventual victory in 2014. His win that year (he also won the Queen Elizabeth II Cup a few weeks later) – and his subsequent nickname ‘the one-eyed wonder horse’, made headlines around the world.  “It was getting frustrating, having come so close to winning the Derby the previous two years. I knew Addy was good enough, and he’s won so much for me in his career, especially at Hickstead. To finally win, it was just ecstasy,” said Trevor.

 

3. Ryan’s Son, John Whitaker

Winner, 1983

The most bittersweet tale of all the Hickstead Derby champions is that of Ryan’s Son, who gave John Whitaker his first Derby victory. A small bay with a big white face and huge feet, Ryan’s Son would go on to have a legion of fans at a time when showjumping was still at its most popular. 

As well as winning the Derby in 1983, Ryan’s Son came second a further four times, making him one of the most consistent horses in the history of the class. Sadly, his legacy was cut short at the age of 19 when he had a bad fall at the second fence in the 1987 Derby. Ryan’s Son walked out of the arena, but a few hours later, back in his stable, he collapsed and died.

In an extraordinary career that has spanned some five decades, John Whitaker names Ryan’s Son as the horse of his lifetime. Thirty-four years after his win, Ryan’s Son rightly holds his place near the top of this top 10 list of Derby champions.

 

2. Stroller, Marion Mould (nee Coakes)

Winner, 1967

In 1967, two Derby records were set when Marion Coakes and Stroller took the title. Marion, aged just 20, was the youngest winner of all – a record that remains today – while Stroller was (and still is) the smallest horse to win the class, standing at just under 14.2hh.

Although they only lifted the trophy once, Marion and Stroller had a superb record in the Derby, jumping three clear rounds and finishing second three times and third once. They produced the sole clear round the year they won, despite slithering down the Derby Bank sideways! Such was Stroller’s incredible surefootedness and scope, they were able to land safely and clear the huge vertical at the bottom of the bank.

You only need to walk the Derby course to appreciate just how huge the fences are, yet Stroller made them look easy. As well as their Derby victory, the pair also claimed the Ladies’ World Championship at Hickstead in 1965, along with two wins in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup and an Olympic silver at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. 

 

1. Boomerang, Eddie Macken

Winner in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979

Of all the equine heroes to conquer Hickstead’s most iconic class, none can rival Boomerang – who takes his place at the top of this poll. Together, he and Eddie Macken won the class an incredible four times in a row from 1976-1979, a record no one has been able to match. After their fourth win, Macken was allowed to keep the original Derby trophy, and a new trophy was commissioned in their honour, which depicts the pair coming down the Derby Bank. Nearly 40 years on, riders still come to Hickstead with the hope of lifting the iconic Boomerang Trophy.

Not only did the pair dominate in Derbies, they picked up Grand Prix wins around the world, with Eddie regularly topping the world rankings in the late 1970s. “I’ll never have a horse that will mean as much as Boomerang, and the possibilities of ever finding one with as much talent are very, very slim indeed. He was an exception,” said Macken.

The year after their final Derby win, Boomerang broke a pedal bone and had to be retired. He was put down at the age of 17, and was buried at Rafeehan Stud in County Meath. His grave is marked by four trees, which represent four wins at Wembley, four clear rounds in the final of the 1978 World Championships, four years in a row without a fence down in the Nations Cup at Dublin, and, of course, his legendary four wins in the Hickstead Derby.

 

This article was first published in June 2017. 

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