Coming of age

A few days before his 21st birthday, James Whitaker scored his first major Hickstead win. Victoria Goff caught up with him ahead of the 2019 Longines Royal International Horse Show. 


The traditional present is, of course, a key to the door – but when James Whitaker turned 21 he was presented with a far more spectacular piece of silverware.

Two days before his 21st birthday last summer, James won one of Hickstead’s iconic classes, the BHS Queen Elizabeth II Cup. In terms of birthday celebrations, it can’t get much better than that.

Surprisingly, James was the first person born into his famous family to have won the Queen’s Cup – Michael’s first wife Veronica is the only other Whitaker to have her name on the trophy, back in 1984. Even more remarkably, for someone who has been coming to Hickstead all his life, it was James’ first major win here and his very first attempt in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup.

Until 2008 when it became a national final open to the highest ranked British Showjumping riders, the Queen’s Cup used to be an international championship open to lady riders only. His win last year saw James become the sixth man to win the title – but he certainly faced strong competition from three ladies in the jump-off.

Event rider Pippa Funnell was the first to go against the clock with her husband William’s former ride Billy Congo. A clear round in a time of 54.34sec certainly put pressure on her rivals, with Alison Barton and Roma IV going on to pick up four faults. James was in next with the former Hickstead Derby winner Glenavadra Brilliant, and he had a tough task ahead of him. “It was a difficult one, because he isn’t that fast a horse. All I could do is go as quick as I could and hope to put enough to pressure on the others,” says James.

The plan paid off – utilising Glenavadra Brilliant’s long stride and making some economic turns, the pair crossed the finish on 52.97sec to go ahead of Pippa Funnell. Only Helen Tredwell and the grey Larksong could prevent them from winning, and sure enough they set off meaning business. But it wasn’t to be – the final fence fell, and although Helen was 2 sec up on the clock she would have to settle for third behind James and Pippa.

“It’s hard to put it into words how it felt to win, it was better than amazing, and it took a while to sink in,” James recalls. “When I went into the lead, it just felt surreal. To win anything in the main ring is brilliant, but for the Queen’s to be my first ever win there was incredible.”

James and Glenavadra Brilliant – that’s Jim and ‘Max’ to their friends – seem to relish our famous Longines International Arena. A few weeks before their win in the Queen’s, James rode the horse in the Al Shira’aa Derby, finishing a very creditable fifth with one fence down and a time fault. It was a promising Hickstead Derby debut for the young rider, although he did have the benefit of Max’s experience, having won the class in 2016 under James’ eldest brother William.  

“Knowing that he’s a past winner gave me confidence to jump those fences,” he says. “My biggest aim is to jump a clear in the Derby – if I can conquer that, I’d be delighted for me and for the horse. It would be great for him to win it again,” adds James, who also rode the horse in the build up to his 2016 win while William was off competing at five-star shows.

Max has now given all three brothers a spin round the Derby, with middle brother George finishing 15th on the horse’s first attempt in 2013. Certain horses just seem to love Hickstead and perform well here, and Glenavadra Brilliant is one of them. “He jumps unreal at Hickstead, because he’s a big horse who loves big grass arenas,” said James.

He certainly has all the bravery and scope needed to be a good Derby horse. A huge Irish chestnut by Brilliant Lad, he looks a sensible type when he’s jumping but at home he is anything but. “At home, he’s a mad man!” James laughs. “He lives in a 20ft x 20ft pen, stands there all day watching everyone, then when you go to get him in he becomes all playful – he’s a big horse when he starts wanting to play! He’s sharper than he looks. You go round the Derby and he doesn’t spook at all, whereas you take him down the road and he’ll spot something and try to run off. But in the ring he tries one hundred percent.”

Home for James is in Yorkshire, at the family farm owned by his parents. It’s a yard steeped in showjumping history, being the place where John and Michael grew up with their brothers Ian and Steven. James is now running the yard on his own, after his elder brother George set up a yard with his girlfriend and William moved abroad, first to Belgium and recently to the USA.

William’s move saw James take over the ride on several of his eldest brother’s horses, including Glenavadra Brilliant and Fandango. More recently he’s also taken over the reins on William’s Olympia winner Lammy Beach, and with another horse that has come from uncle Michael, he has a decent string to compete this season at the bigger shows as well as hundreds of young and novice rides to produce.

He credits his parents Ian and Alison as his biggest supporters. “My dad tries his best to come to every show, and he trains me too. My parents are there for me if I win or lose.” Being part of the famous Whitaker dynasty comes with its benefits too. “Not only have my uncles been amongst the best in the world for years, but Robert, William, Ellen and the rest of the family are all very good too. It’s useful to know if you go to a show, you can ask your family anything and they’re always going to be there with advice. We work together so often if there was a horse we didn’t get on with it might go well for one of the others. The downside is that it comes with a certain level of expectation, when people see the name Whitaker they automatically assume you’ll do well.”

It’s clear James has plenty of the family’s legendary talent, and don’t be surprised if the next few years see him go leaping up the Longines World Rankings. For now he is building his string, working hard and looking for new opportunities. In the Spring, he went out to visit William at his new place of work, Rushy Marsh Stables in Florida, to check out the showjumping scene and make new contacts there.

His passion for the sport is clearly evident. “I follow showjumping every day of the week, and check the results from every single show – I’m a bit of a weirdo like that!” he says. Aside from all things equestrian, he loves football and supports his local team, Huddersfield, and loves an occasional poker night and catch up with fellow riders.

As the Hickstead season grows closer, James will be busy preparing Max for another tilt at both the Al Shira’aa Derby and the BHS Queen Elizabeth II Cup. He works a lot on the horse’s fitness, especially for the lengthy Derby course, and will have a few training sessions at uncle Michael’s to practice fences like the Devil’s Dyke and the Bank.

There will be one person who sadly won’t be here to watch them in action at Hickstead and that’s Glenavadra Brilliant’s co-owner, Calvin MacDonald, who died in January of this year. “Calvin was always a big supporter of mine,” says James. “To do well again would be a great tribute to him.”

His main aims for this year are to nail that elusive clear round in the Al Shira’aa Derby, and he’d love to win Yorkshire’s famous Cock o’the North title too. He also has his sights set on jumping in the Longines King George V Gold Cup. “I love coming to Hickstead, and even when I wasn’t jumping here I’d always come down to watch,” he says. “It’s a brilliant show to win at.”

Then there’s the chance of another Queen’s Cup title, which would make him the first back-to-back winner since Marion Hughes in 1995 and 1996. James described his win last summer as ‘one ticked off the bucket list’ – and you just know he’s going to cross off a lot more ambitions in the years to come. At 21, James got the key to the door – and he is certainly going places.

This article was first published in July 2019 


Harriet Nuttall Q&A

Showjumper Harriet Nuttall has an extraordinary record at Hickstead, having won the Science Supplements Speed Derby twice, the Science Supplements BHS Queen Elizabeth II Cup and the Science Supplements All England Grand Prix - plus finishing runner-up three times in the Al Shira'aa Derby. Alex Irwin caught up with her to find out more about what makes her tick. 

Read more


Holly Smith Q&A

Alex Irwin caught up with Hickstead star Holly Smith at the Science Supplements All England Jumping Championships 

Read more


The unstoppable Irish

Victoria Goff looks back at Ireland's stunning win in the 2018 Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup of Great Britain, and goes back into the history books to remember the other memorable Irish wins at Hickstead 

Read more


William’s fabulous four

William Funnell joined the elite band of four-time winners of the Hickstead Derby last summer. Victoria Goff spoke to him about what it means to join the likes of Harvey Smith, Eddie Macken and brothers John and Michael Whitaker. 

Read more


Top Speed

We take a look back over the history of the British Speed Derby. 

By Victoria Goff

Read more


Five of the best

Five riders share the record of having four wins in the Hickstead Derby. Victoria Goff takes a look through the archives to relive these legendary performances. 

Read more


Coming of age

A few days before his 21st birthday, James Whitaker scored his first major Hickstead win. Victoria Goff caught up with him ahead of the 2019 Longines Royal International Horse Show. 

Read more


A Platinum President

The BHS President Martin Clunes is a regular visitor to Hickstead. Victoria Goff finds out more about his role at the British Horse Society, and why he loves coming to our shows 

Read more


10 magical showing moments

We take a look back over some of the standout showing moments from the 2017 season 

Read more


Miss Consistent

Harriet Nuttall proved she's no Hickstead bridesmaid, when adding yet another major title to her CV last summer. Victoria Goff caught up with the reigning Queen Elizabeth II Cup winner 

Read more


Perfect Timing

Paul Tapner talks to Hickstead Press Officer Victoria Goff about his first win in the MS Amlin Eventers' Challenge

Read more


Fiesta Time

Brazil had an extraordinary run of form at last year's Longines Royal International Horse Show. Victoria Goff finds out more. 

Read more


Worth the wait

Victoria Goff describes the wait Nigel Coupe had before he finally become the Al Shira'aa Derby Champion in 2017. 

Read more


Doing it for Ella

Hickstead's press officer Victoria Goff caught up with Matthew Sampson, the winner of the Bunn Leisure Speed Derby 

Read more


Race against time

Victoria Goff takes a look back at some of the famous Hickstead Derby jump-offs that have taken place over the years. 

Read more


A New Era

Victoria Goff finds out more about Al Shira'aa, the title sponsors of the Hickstead Derby 

Read more


Q&A with Georgie Strang

Next week sees one of the UK’s largest horse shows open their gates for the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Great Britain at the BHS Royal International Horse Show. We caught up with one of the MS Amlin Eventers' Challenge competitors, Georgie Strang, and found out how she’s feeling about returning to Hickstead for her second shot at the title…

Read more


12 moments we loved at this year’s Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting

The Al Shira’aa Derby drew our June fixture to a close, and what a way to round off four fabulous sunny days of showjumping and showing. We take a look back at some of the best moments of this year’s show.

Read more


#RoadToHickstead contenders reveal...

We ask some of our leading Al Shira'aa Derby contenders some killer questions.

Read more


Harriet and Nigel go head-to-head

Two of the main Al Shira'aa Hickstead Derby contenders, Harriet Nuttall and Nigel Coupe, discuss this year's challenge.

Read more


Hickstead Q&A - Hamad Ali Al Kirbi

UAE rider Hamad Ali Al Kirbi made his Hickstead debut last summer when he competed at the Al Shira'aa Hickstead Derby Meeting. We caught up with him ahead of this year's show. 

Read more


Can you spot our Mystery Guests?

We're very busy preparing the International Arena ahead of this year's Al Shira'aa Hickstead Derby Meeting CSI4*, and with spring being somewhat late to arrive this year we've had to ask some special guests to join our Ground Crew! 

Read more


Billy the King

Ireland's Billy Twomey enjoyed an amazing run of success at the 2016 BHS Royal International Horse Show, including a win in the Longines BHS King George V Gold Cup. Victoria Goff spoke to him about his golden run.

Read more


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'. 

Read more


The One to Watch

In the run up to the 2017 Longines Royal International Horse Show, Hickstead Press Officer Victoria Goff caught up with Amlin Plus Eventers' Challenge winner Esib Power.  

Read more


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. 

Read more


An unforgettable Adventure

Adventure De Kannan is one of the most successful Hickstead horses of recent times. Victoria Goff looks back at the remarkable career of the one-eyed wonder horse

Read more


William Whitaker: How to win the Derby

The 2016 Hickstead Derby winner William Whitaker shares his winning formula! 

Read more


William Whitaker: Advice for Hickstead newcomers

If you haven't ridden at the All England Jumping Course before, reigning Hickstead Derby champion William Whitaker shares his insights into competing here.

Read more


William Whitaker: The perfect warm-up

The current Hickstead Derby champion William Whitaker explains how to nail your warm-up routine, both at home and at competitions. 

Read more


William Whitaker: Winning a jump-off

Want to nail those jump-off rounds? Hickstead Derby 2016 champion William Whitaker shares his advice, and suggests two training exercises to improve your performance against the clock. 

Read more


William Whitaker's training secrets

In the run up to this year’s Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting, reigning Derby champion William Whitaker shares his showjumping training insights.

Words by Victoria Spicer, photos by Daisy Honeybunn

Read more


6 links between Hickstead and the Grand National

The home of British Showjumping and the most famous race on earth have more in common than you might think, writes Victoria Spicer...

Read more


A winning debut

Chloe Winchester, winner of the Templant Events Queen Elizabeth II Cup in 2015, chats to Victoria Spicer about her winning debut at Hickstead

Read more


Elizabeth the first

Last year Elizabeth 'Beezie' Madden became the first woman ever to win the Longines King George V Gold Cup. In 2015, she did it again. Hickstead's Press Officer Victoria Spicer caught up with America's first lady of showjumping. 

Read more


12 moments we loved at this year's Derby meeting

There was rain, there was mud, but much more importantly there was some brilliant competition at this year's Hickstead Derby Meeting. We choose our top 12 moments from this year's show. 

Read more


Back on top

Hickstead Press Officer Victoria Spicer chats to the connections of Loughnatousa WB, a horse who holds a very special record in the Derby...

Read more


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...

Read more


A cool guy

Victoria Spicer chats to Guy Williams, the winner of the 2015 British Speed Derby, about setting records and why Hickstead will always be special to him

Read more


Eight great Derby rivalries

There have been some amazing clashes in the 56 years of the Hickstead Derby. Pippa Cuckson takes a look at some of the great rivalries over the years...

Read more


Breen’s Derby dream comes true

Hickstead's Press Officer Victoria Spicer chats to the 2014 winner of the Derby, Trevor Breen. 

Read more


Five Minutes with Fran Callan

Continuing our new Five Minutes With... series, we caught up with Fran Callan, the head travelling groom for Trevor Breen. As part of her job, she looks after Hickstead megastar and reigning Derby winner Adventure De Kannan...

Read more


Miller's tale

Victoria Spicer meets Phillip Miller, winner of the 2013 Hickstead Derby, to talk about his rise from riding school lessons to Hickstead champion. 

Read more


A lesson with Derby winner Phillip Miller

When we ran an exclusive Hickstead Derby Community competition to win a lesson with the 2013 Derby winner Phillip Miller, we had a great response. In the end, we selected 25-year-old Jodine Brooks from Kent and her seven-year-old Dutch gelding, Camorasun.

Read more


15 facts about the Derby course

From poles that 'twang', resident newts and motorway fences turned into showjumps, Victoria Spicer investigates 15 things that you might not know about the most famous course in British showjumping...

Read more


Five minutes with Phillip Miller

Her latest victim in the 'Five Minutes With Series…', Daisy sits down with natural born comedian and Hickstead Derby superstar, 2013 winner Phillip Miller…

Read more


Five minutes with Bob Ellis

Daisy Bunn is back in the interviewer's chair this week with Hickstead's very own Bob The Buider, world renowned, Olympic course builder Bob Ellis...

Read more


10 iconic Derby moments

Last seen disappearing into our dusky archives, Hickstead Press Officer and journalist Victoria Spicer has put together a review of 10 of our most iconic Derby moments over the years, specially for our HDC members. 

Read more


Five Minutes with Steve Wilde

Continuing our new Five Minutes With... interview series, Hickstead Director Daisy Bunn sits down with Hickstead's 'golden tonsils', commentator and Director of Ceremonies Steve Wilde...

Read more


Five minutes with Daisy Bunn

As part of a new series, exclusively for our HDC members, Hickstead Director Daisy Bunn is going to catch key members of the Hickstead team for mini 5 minute interviews, to give our members a unique, behind-the-scenes take on everything Hickstead. Who better to start with than Daisy herself!

Read more


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. 

Read more


A Hickstead first

In 2013, Paul Beecher became the first person to produce a clear round having been drawn first to go in the Hickstead Derby, then go on to win the class. Victoria Spicer spoke to him about his achievement.

Read more


A National treasure

Harvey Smith is the only man to have won both the Hickstead Derby and trained a Grand National winner. Victoria Spicer reflects on his remarkable achievement.

Read more


Olympic heroes

Did you know that three out of the four showjumping gold medallists from London 2012 are past winners of the Hickstead Derby? Victoria Spicer catches up with them to find out what those wins meant.

Read more



RH17 5NU

Tel: +44 1273 834315
Fax: +44 1273 834452

View our Privacy Policy.

Our website uses cookies

Find out more about how these are used in our privacy policy.