60 facts about the Hickstead Derby

How well do you know the history of the famous Al Shira'aa Derby?

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  1. Douglas Bunn founded the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead in West Sussex in 1960. He’d dreamed of opening a showground to rival those he had encountered on the continent – Hickstead was the realisation of that dream.


  1. A year later, he ran the first British Jumping Derby. He wanted it to be the sort of iconic competition that the public took to its heart, like the Boat Race or the Grand National.


  1. Douglas got the idea for the class from having seen newsreel footage of the Hamburg Derby while at the cinema.


  1. He flew to Hamburg on New Year’s Eve 1960 and set about measuring the entire Derby course in the middle of a snowstorm, much to the bemusement of the showground’s officials! Hickstead’s famous Derby Bank ended up being six inches higher than its Hamburg counterpart, perhaps because the falling snow made the measurements inaccurate, or perhaps due to Douglas’s competitive nature.


  1. The sloping face of the Derby Bank is a whopping 10ft 6in. When you’re on top of a horse at the top of the bank, you’re as tall as a double decker bus. The gradient of the Bank was made less steep in


  1. The highest fences on the course are 1.60m tall, and some oxers are a whopping 2m wide. The public get the chance to see just how huge they are during the free public course walk, held on the Sunday morning.


  1. The Bank caused some consternation when it was first revealed. Seamus Hayes travelled from Ireland to take part in the Derby, announcing that he had “come to show them all how to jump the bloody bank!” He went on to win with the only clear round on Goodbye III, making them the first ever winners of the Hickstead Derby.


  1. Seamus and Goodbye III repeated their win in 1964, becoming the first dual winners of the class.


  1. The course has barely changed in 60 years, except for a few safety alterations – including lighter poles, which fall down more easily!


  1. The course is 1,195 m long, with 16 fences and 23 jumping efforts. The time allowed is 180sec.


  1. Pat Smythe and Flanagan were the winners of the second running of the Derby, with Pat becoming the first female rider to win.


  1. Only five women have got their name on the Derby roll of honour – Pat Smythe, Alison Westwood, Marion Mould, Anneli Drummond-Hay and Tina Fletcher.


  1. Alison Westwood actually won the class twice with The Maverick VII (1968 and 1973) but by that time she had married and her surname had changed to Dawes, while her horse’s name had changed due to sponsorship reasons to Mr Banbury.


  1. There was a 38-year wait for another woman winner after Alison’s second win, until Tina Fletcher’s victory in 2011 with Promised Land. Tina’s husband, Graham, just missed out after jumping one of only two clear rounds in 1974.


  1. Several female riders have come very close to winning in recent years, including Harriet Nuttall – who has finished the runner-up four times – and Olympian Holly Smith, who was second in 2018.


  1. Three members of the famous Whitaker family have won the Derby – John, Michael and William.


  1. Ellen Whitaker came very close to joining that list in 2004, but she was just pipped to the post by her Uncle John.


  1. John and Michael Whitaker are on the illustrious list of four-time winners, along with Eddie Macken, Harvey Smith and William Funnell. John’s four wins came on four different horses!


  1. Eddie Macken is the only one of the four-time winners to have had four consecutive wins, and all on the same horse – the wonderful Boomerang.


  1. Nick Skelton won three years in a row, and narrowly missed out on a fourth victory when Joe Turi and Vital beat him and Apollo in a jump-off.


  1. Marion Mould (nee Coakes) and the 14.1hh Stroller jumped clear round the Derby three times, but only won once. Only two other horses have jumped three clear rounds, Kilbaha and Apollo.


  1. Michael Whitaker was just 20 when he won his first Derby in 1980. He then had to wait 11 years until clocking up a further hat-trick of consecutive wins with Mon Santa.


  1. Marion Mould was a few months younger than Michael Whitaker when she won, and she held the record for being the youngest winner for nearly six decades until 19-year-old Michael Pender won in 2019.


  1. John Whitaker’s Gammon was the oldest horse to win the class at 21 – he was brought out of semi-retirement to win in 1998. Two years later, John won again with the 20-year-old Welham.


  1. Only two mares have won the contest, John Popely’s Bluebird (1997) and Peter Charles’ Corrada, who won three years on the trot from 2001-2003.


  1. Captain John Ledingham became the first rider to win the Speed Derby and the British Jumping Derby in the same year. The wins came courtesy of Castlepollard and Kilbaha, two horses that John had purchased on the same shopping trip.


  1. John Ledingham first won in 1984 with Gabhran, then won twice in a row with Kilbaha in 94 and 95. He was narrowly denied a third win in 1996 when his horse slipped and hit the first fence in the jump-off. That fence, known as the Cornishman, is a stone wall with one pole above it, and it has very rarely been knocked down in the history of the class.


  1. Olympic champion Ben Maher won with Alfredo II in 2005, and he also won the Speed Derby that year with Mercurius – a winning double that he credits as kicking off his phenomenal career.


  1. Paul Beecher and Loughnatousa WB were drawn first to go in the 2012 Derby but netted a perfect clear to start the class with a bang. William Funnell and Dorada joined them in the jump-off but Paul lifted the trophy.


  1. Loughnatousa WB is the only horse to win the class under two different riders – Paul Beecher and Trevor Breen.


  1. Trevor Breen’s second win in the class came on the remarkably consistent Adventure De Kannan. The gelding had come so close to winning on a number of occasions, and finally did so a few months after having an operation to remove an eye.


  1. The 1970 winner Harvey Smith was so confident of repeating his win the following year that he didn’t bother returning the trophy. Douglas Bunn was furious, and demanded it be sent for. Harvey duly won, and while circling after the finish line he flicked his famous V sign at Douglas in the Master’s Box. He was disqualified for that action, but his prize was reinstated after an appeal.


  1. Rob Hoekstra, who was Performance Manager at the time of Great Britain’s historic team gold medal at London 2012, won the Derby in 1999 with Lionel II.


  1. Three members of that London 2012 gold-medal winning showjumping team have won the Hickstead Derby – Nick Skelton, Peter Charles and Ben Maher.


  1. The jump-off course excludes the double of water ditches (fence 3), the road jump, bank and rails (7, 8 and 9), the open ditch and the balustrade (13 and 14).


  1. The fence on top of the Bank is 1m high. It is rare for this to fall but it has happened, including in 1997 when William Funnell and Comex faulted here.


  1. That wasn’t William Funnell’s only hard luck story in the Derby. In 2004 he was due to ride Buddy Bunn, a home-bred horse belonging to his good friend Douglas Bunn, but William had to hand the ride over to John Whitaker due to a groin strain. John ended up winning on the catch ride, giving Douglas his first and only home-bred Derby winner.


  1. Funnell recalls being 13 years old and watching Eddie Macken’s record fourth victory with Boomerang in very muddy conditions, and being inspired to one day win the class himself.


  1. Similarly, Eddie Macken was 12 when he saw Seamus Hayes win the first Derby, and was inspired to one day do the same.


  1. Having won the Derby four times in a row, Eddie Macken kept the original trophy. A new one was commissioned in its place, depicting Eddie riding down the Derby Bank, and known as The Boomerang Trophy after his famous horse.


  1. Al Shira’aa has sponsored the Derby since 2017. They now give a second trophy to the Derby winner, which can be kept forever.  


  1. Brazil’s Nelson Pessoa won in 1963 and 1965, then had a 31-year wait to add a third victory. By then he was 60 and was recovering from a heart attack – he had to wear a monitor to ensure his heart rate didn’t get too high during the class!


  1. The Bank has seen its fair share of drama over the years. Annette Lewis and Tutein jumped straight off the top of the bank in 1985, while Axel Wockener managed to come down the bank backwards in 1976 on his horse Glasgow.


  1. The uprights at the bottom of the Derby Bank are a whopping 1.60m tall.


  1. The ideal technique for the Derby Bank is to slide two-thirds of the way down, pop neatly off, canter one stride then clear the Derby Rails.


  1. The Devil’s Dyke is widely regarded as the trickiest fence on the course. The first fence (4ft 9in) has a drop, the middle rails (standing 4ft 9in) are over a water ditch, and the final rails stand at 4ft 8in and are jumped uphill.


  1. It is named after a local tourist attraction in West Sussex, a valley in the South Downs that looks a bit like a canyon.


  1. The 2014 jump-off between Trevor Breen and 2013 winner Phillip Miller was the closest in Derby history, with Trevor finishing just 0.03 sec ahead of his rival.


  1. The great German rider Paul Schockemöhle won three times, and was another to come close to that elusive four-time record. In 1984 he looked like he might win with Deister when his bridle broke in the jump-off.


  1. In 1980, Harvey Smith won on Sanyo Video, the ride of his son Robert. Robert had missed the Derby due to a temporary suspension.


  1. Grand National-winning jockey Robert Power won the Speed Derby in 2013 with his sister Esib’s former event horse Doonaveeragh O One, then completed the Derby itself a year later to finish in a very credible 16th Esib and ‘Tommy’ have gone on to be placed in the competition on several occasions.


  1. Nearly every winner has hailed from Britain and Ireland. Only two other countries have fielded winners – Brazil, thanks to Nelson Pessoa, and Germany, with Schockemöhle and Hendrik Snoek both lifting the title.


  1. Anneli Drummond-Hay won in 1969 with Xanthos, and was also third in 1963 with Merely-A-Monarch – a former event horse who had won the inaugural Burghley two years earlier.


  1. David Barker was unlucky not to win in 1963 when he and Mister Softee left all the fences standing but slipped and fell on the flat. Three years later, Mister Softee won with David Broome.


  1. No one has won the Hamburg and Hickstead Derbies in the same year since Ireland's Eddie Macken, who won both classes in 1976 and 1978.


  1. The most recent running of the Al Shira’aa Derby took place in 2019, with Covid-19 leading to the cancellation of the competition in 2020 and 2021.


  1. Three riders went into the jump-off in 2019, with Ireland’s Mikey Pender jumping the only double clear on Hearton Du Bois Halleux. Harriett Biddick was second with A Touch Imperious, while Hickstead-based Shane Breen was third with Golden Hawk.


  1. There have only been 64 clear rounds in the history of the Derby. Often a single clear round will guarantee the win, and on many occasions two or more riders on four faults will jump-off for the honours.


  1. Tim Stockdale was the first rider to jump double clear in the Derby but not win, doing so with the half-Clydesdale mare Wiston Bridget in 2000. Ten years later, the same thing happened to Tina Fletcher and Promised Land – they jumped double clear but Guy Williams was much faster in the jump-off. However, a year later Tina finally netted that longed for victory.


  1. On Sunday 26 June, we will witness the 60th running of the Al Shira’aa Derby. Thirty-one different riders have their name inscribed on the Derby roll of honour – and there’s not long to wait until we discover who will be joining them.


By Victoria Goff


This article was first published in June 2022 

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