A home from home

Hickstead is very familiar stomping ground for David Simpson, the Queen Elizabeth II Cup winner in 2016. Victoria Goff spoke to him about winning on 'home territory'. 


It’s little wonder that Ireland’s David Simpson always looks so at home in the International Arena – having moved to Hickstead as a teenager to be based with Shane Breen, it’s become a pretty familiar hunting ground for him over the years. He’s picked up dozens of national titles here, he and his wife Louise (nee Pavitt) are familiar faces at all our events, and their two children are among the close-knit bunch of showjumping offspring who rule the roost at Hickstead during the shows!

Even when David and Louise made the step to set up alone, their first business venture was at Sue Bunn’s yard Stuccles Farm, a stone’s throw from the All England Jumping Course. Now they have a place of their own at Coolham near Horsham, they’re still in close vicinity to the showground that has played such a big part in their careers.

“Hickstead is my second home, I was only 17 when I moved here and the Bunn family always made me really welcome,” says David, who grew up in a big hunting family near the Co Donegal/Derry border. “The Derby Meeting is my favourite show in the world – or at least it comes a very close second to Dublin! There’s just so much history here.”

Last year he had his most successful Hickstead season to date, claiming both the Bunn Leisure Derby Trial with Gotti Van Paemel at the Derby Meeting, and the Templant Events Queen Elizabeth II Cup with Chessy 17 at the Longines Royal International Horse Show. David’s latter win made him the fifth man to lift the famous trophy since the class was opened up to both men and women in 2008 (previously it was restricted to women riders only). “The Queen’s Cup was one class I’d always wanted to win. Shane was always one of my heroes and he was the first man to win it, so it meant a lot for me to win,” he says.

Now one of the most prestigious championships in the British showjumping calendar, only the highest-ranked national riders are eligible to compete in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup. Last year David was one of just five who went clear in the first round, and being drawn second to last in the jump-off played to his strengths. “My mare is extremely quick so I knew I could be the fastest, but she can also jump big into doubles and trebles so I had to slow down a bit for the combinations.”

Having set the fastest time, he had to wait to see if former Derby winners Phillip Miller and Caritiar Z could match it. “I wasn’t nervous watching Phillip, I knew I’d done as much as I could and if I didn’t win then it wasn’t meant to be. I always try to have that mindset or you can get really frustrated in our sport,” he adds. In the end, Phillip shaved more than half a second off David’s time, but knocked the final fence to finish fourth.

Having claimed the title, David rode in to collect his trophy on a different grey horse. “Chessy hates prizegivings, she really frets, so if she’s going well we have to have another horse on standby!” He describes her as “funny looking and quite weird”, but it’s said with obvious fondness. “Beth Hall is her groom and she does everything for her, on Beth’s day off she doesn’t like anyone else looking after her,” he says.

It was Louise who first noticed the mare on the Portuguese tour, and David was immediately keen: “I saw her, I liked her and bought her,” he explains. Four months later she was sold to the States, although they had quite a bit of success in the interim, including a win at a CSI3* show in Beervelde, Belgium. The new owner rode her for a season, then asked David if he’d like to have the ride back – an opportunity he seized. “She’s incredibly careful. She’s so fast that to win you don’t even have to go that quickly. She’s like a cross between a pony and a motorbike.”

The mare is currently for sale, but for now David is having a great season with her, competing on the Irish Nations Cup team at the five-star show in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, and winning a Grand Prix in Valencia.

His Derby Trial winner Gotti Van Paemel has also been sold to a Young Rider in the States, though David hopes to have another crack at winning the class this year with the talented Keoki. “He won’t be ready for the Derby as he’s only eight, but he’s an incredible horse and has been placed in three Grands Prix already,” he says.

It’ll be the first time since 2012 that he’s not had a ride in the Al Shira’aa Derby, but he’s factored in the line-up several times in Hickstead’s most famous class over the years – most notably finishing fourth in 2013 and seventh and ninth in 2014. His Derby Trial victory was the first time he’d won a major international class here at Hickstead. “It’s really nice to win a class here, actually – usually it’s Louise who wins,” he said afterwards.

David was one of three riders to make it through to the jump-off in the Derby Trial, along with William Funnell (Billy Onslow) and Shane Breen (Acoustik Solo Du Baloubet). But when both riders picked up faults, it paved the way for David and Gotti to deliver a steady clear round to seal the win. It was a special summer all in all, as the Derby Trial and Queen’s Cup wins came shortly before his wedding to Louise. “I have to keep winning classes to pay for the wedding!” he joked in the press conference after his Royal International win.

The wedding was held at the South Lodge Hotel in West Sussex and the event was a veritable who’s who of showjumping, with Anthony Condon selected as Best Man and Louise’s sister Nicole Pavitt among the bridesmaids. The guests included the Bunn family and various Hickstead regulars such as Geoff Billington, Michael Duffy and Richard Howley. Shane Breen and Greg Broderick arrived late, having travelled over from the Olympics in Rio to attend – and the speeches were delayed when the whole wedding party paused celebrations to watch Nick Skelton claim individual gold in the showjumping final.

David and Louise’s two young sons Connor and Charlie were also part of the wedding party, and they’re another reason that Simpson loves competing at Hickstead so much as it means he can be closer to home. “I counted being on 17 different flights this year, and they were all before February!” he explains. “This lifestyle can be really tough, you’re away nearly every weekend so you need to have a very understanding partner if they’re not in the sport themselves. The hours are crazy.”

So how do they combine parenthood with life on the international showjumping circuit? “We’re lucky to have an incredible girl called Emily West who is our secretary, PA and nanny – she runs mine and Louise’s life. We couldn’t function without her. She books flights, does accounts, organises the tours abroad and will come out to international shows with the kids.”

The birth of son Connor four years ago coincided with David’s decision to leave Breen Equestrian after many years as part of the team. “I’d come up through ponies, juniors and young rider teams in Ireland and was looking for somewhere to go to train over the winter,” he says. “My Dad had been chatting to Shane at a show and asking him for advice about where I could go – lots of my friends were going to the States so I was thinking of doing that. But Shane offered for me to go to Hickstead for the winter, and I ended up staying for seven years! It’s a real team there, you worked ridiculously hard, but it was such a cool atmosphere for a young person to be in. Even though I’ve set up on my own now, I still work closely with Shane.”

This year the goal is for both David and Louise to improve their international rankings, and David wants to represent Ireland on some more Nations Cup teams. Another good season at Hickstead would be a bonus, too. “Hickstead is an incredible arena to ride in. Even when the stands are full of people and the atmosphere is electric, when you ride through that archway it’s like you’re there on your own. Even though the shows are so prestigious, and us riders are under pressure to do well, it’s always really relaxed and fun.” As they say, there’s no place like home.

This article first appeared in July 2017. 




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