Three in a row

Journalist Andrew Baldock takes a look back over the Hickstead archives at the three riders who have won the Derby three times in succession - and finds out which other riders came close...

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There are hat-tricks, and then there is the Hickstead Derby's hat-trick of hat-tricks. It is an exclusive club that currently contains only three members - Nick Skelton, Michael Whitaker and Peter Charles, all of whom achieved three consecutive wins in a row. Of course, Eddie Macken hit this milestone and then went one better by winning a record fourth time, but he remains the only rider to ever achieve this.

A potential new recruit to this ‘three in a row’ club is waiting in the wings this year after Ireland's Trevor Breen claimed the 2014 Hickstead Derby title on Advenure De Kannan, and then triumphed again 12 months later with Loughnatousa WB, who was a Derby champion three years previously, when ridden by Paul Beecher.

Given that there have only been 58 clear rounds since the Derby's inception in 1961, to win it once represents a Herculean feat, let alone claim a hat-trick, and just three combinations - Macken with Boomerang, Whitaker and Mon Santa and Charles aboard Corrada - did it on the same horse.

Boomerang, of course, is the greatest Hickstead legend of them all, a Derby king four years on the bounce from 1976 to 1979. Two of those triumphs were secured with clear rounds, while Irishman Macken also claimed second with Kerrygold in 1977, and then he completed a hat-trick just a week after finishing second in the Aachen World Championships.

Their Derby dominance was confirmed a year later when, despite terrible ground conditions, Macken and Boomerang conquered the field as last-to-go, collecting just four faults, with Macken commenting at the time: "For me, he’s the best horse ever. I am certainly very lucky to have him. I think people who saw him, saw what he did today, they’re very lucky, because they will wait a very long time before they see another one.”

And in Derby terms, so it proved. Skelton did the hat-trick between 1987 and 1989, winning initially on J Nick, followed by a double on Apollo, but it was a dozen years after Macken's final triumph that another hat-trick bid began, this time from Michael Whitaker and the Lady Harris-owned Mon Santa.

Mon Santa had already confirmed its world-class ability by partnering Whitaker to Great Britain team gold and individual silver at the 1989 European Championships in Rotterdam, while the following season, a team bronze followed at the Stockholm World Games, and 1991 saw European team silver in La Baule, which also the first of three successive Hickstead Derby triumphs.

Michael had previously won the Derby as a 20-year-old in 1980, riding Owen Gregory, but Mon Santa took him to another level, winning with clear rounds in 1991 and 1993, with that latter success coming following a rare Derby jump-off that also included Australian Chris Chadwick, riding Mr Midnight, and Frenchman Herve Godignon with Prince D'Incoville.

Captain John Ledingham, whose first Derby win had been aboard Gabhran in 1984, went close to emulating Whitaker with back-to-back wins on Kilbaha in 1994 and 1995, but the 1996 title went to Brazilian Nelson Pessoa on 19-year-old Loro Piana Vivaldi. Pessoa, 60, suffered a heart attack the previous November, and he wore a heart monitor at Hickstead to ensure his heart-rate didn't go too high. It was another truly inspired Hickstead Derby story.

The year 2001 saw the beginning of the Charles-Corrada Derby story. Corrada, a 12-year-old Holstein grey mare, had a slightly inauspicious opening to Derby life when Charles began his round slightly after the 45 seconds allowed to start. "I was actually speaking to the course-builders, asking them to tell the judges on the bank to be lenient on me, and I forgot to start in time!" he said.

Taking up his Derby memories, Charles added: "Corrada was an all-round good horse. She was a big. strong mare, and it took me a little while to figure the ride out. Funnily enough, I didn't do the Derby Trial that year, but I went into the jump-off class on the Saturday, and then the Derby, but the bank had always been an issue.

"At home, we could never get her to come down to the bank, we just couldn't do it. Our bank at home was much smaller than Hickstead's, but I think in the spirit of competition with the adrenalin up, she just went for it. It was much tougher in those days, certainly in terms of the bank.

"She was clear jumping in 2001 - we were the only ones - and in the three years, she didn't have a pole down. I remember in 2002, we had a jump-off with Mr Springfield, ridden by Robert Smith, which was maybe the fastest horse in the world at that time. I couldn't believe how fast Robert went. He obviously didn't know Corrada, because he went round like a scorched cat and had three down. I actually thanked him on the way out! He gave it to me on a plate. We jumped four Derby rounds at Hickstead and never had a fence down.

"I told everyone I would win it, and the only way I wouldn't was if the rider took the wrong course! She was a dead-cert. It wasn't me being cocky, she was just that good around Hickstead. She won the La Baule Derby as well, and also got a European team gold medal, and her back foot stopped me getting in the final four at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez. She was a good mare. She did a lot of good things.

"If you have got a really good horse, the Derby shouldn't trouble you. You should jump it. It is a lot more friendly than it used to be - the hedge has been cut down and the ditches are a lot more friendlier now, and the Bank is not as steep, which I can understand, but it is still a tough test. They were all very good horses - Boomerang, Mon Santa, Corrada.

"I never wanted to go into the Derby just to take part. When you are at the top of the Bank, it is purely a case of believing in your horse and that he will do it. Some horses don't like it, and if they don't like it, there is no point forcing the issue. You know straightaway when you are up there. They might have a little look, then they will go down the Bank. If they don't want to go, then all the people in the world won't get them down it."

Barely had the ink dried on on Corrada's Derby chapter, than another Derby legend, this time the Will Funnell-ridden Cortaflex Mondriaan, a combination that triumphed in 2006, then again in 2008 and 2009 before missing out on a hat-trick when Guy Williams and Softrack Skip Two Ramiro beat Tina Fletcher and Promised Land in a jump-off.

Speaking to Funnell the day before his 2010 Derby title assault, he offered a candid insight into what Derby day is like when the stakes are so high.

"It is probably one of the most nerve-wracking days," he said. "When it goes right, the Derby, it's fine, but there are so many fences. There are so many things that can go wrong on the way round - everything needs to go right on the day.

"Even when your horse is on good form, there is no way you ever get blase about it. Rider and horse need to be fully focused, but you need a bit of luck as well. When Mondriaan went into that ring, he raised his game. I didn't have to worry about him not wanting to jump The Dyke or something, so that was one thing I could put out of my mind.

"All I had to do was help him as much as I can to clear the fences, which halves your job. He's a fantastic Derby horse that won derbies all over the world."

So, now it is over to Trevor Breen, and an attempt to gain entry into Hickstead's Derby pantheon. It will not be easy - it never has been, or never will be - but he will probably start as favourite, and his record during the past two years suggests the Irishman could once again set a soaring standard.

Only 28 riders and 38 horses have ever won the Hickstead Derby - that is the elite nature of it all - and as a two-time champion, Breen is already alongside the very finest Hickstead exponents. If he makes it three - and siginificantly, three in a row - then he will be firmly established as a true Derby great after once again conquering arguably the toughest showjumping track of all.

This article first appeared in June 2016

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