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. 

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You can’t name a much more illustrious group of riders than those who hold the record for four Hickstead Derby wins. In the six decades since the first Derby took place, only Harvey Smith, Eddie Macken, and brothers John and Michael Whitaker have amassed four wins in our most famous class – then last year, William Funnell joined this elite group of showjumping greats.

To win the Derby once is an achievement, to win twice or three times is remarkable, but to achieve four wins is surely a mark of eternal greatness. The first rider of this famous quintet to achieve this was Ireland’s Eddie Macken, and what was most impressive about his achievement was that he won four years in a row, and all with the same horse – the wonderful Boomerang.

Boomerang was not only a superb Derby horse, he also won countless Grands Prix and Nations Cups, and helped Macken to the top of the world rankings for three years running. Right from their first attempt at Hickstead’s most iconic class, Eddie knew he had a seriously talented horse. “The first year he jumped in the Derby he had one fence down, but I knew he was an exceptional Derby horse, and we set our sights on that class the following year with a big chance he could win it,” he said.

Sure enough, the pair came back in 1976 and jumped the only clear round to give them the title. Macken proved his dominance the following year by returning for another victory on Boomerang along with a second place with his other ride, Kerrygold (the former 1975 Derby winner when known as Pele and ridden by Paul Darragh).

In 1978, Eddie Macken equalled Harvey Smith’s then record of three Hickstead Derby wins. What was even more incredible about the feat was that it took place just a week after the World Championships, where Eddie and Boomerang just missed out on winning by a quarter of a time fault, having left every fence standing in the rider-swapping final four rounds. “The World Championships finished on a Sunday, and the following Sunday was the Hickstead Derby, so I wondered if I should jump him. But I’ll never forget, we took him into the warm-up ring and he felt absolutely amazing. That was the year I felt most confident about winning,” Macken recalls.

Their unbelievable run continued in 1979, when they also had the honour of being the first combination to win the Derby Trial and the Derby in the same year. “Before that fourth Derby there was a lot of pressure. Winning four times was something nobody else had achieved before, and I knew he could do it if I didn’t make a mistake and screw it up. But that year the ground was terrible, it was almost unjumpable. But Boomerang slogged round in the mud, and he gave an exceptional performance to win,” says Eddie. 

The year after their final Derby win, Boomerang broke a pedal bone and had to be retired. But he was unsettled in retirement and, with his foot deteriorating, the decision was made to put him down at the age of 17. He is buried at Rafeehan Stud in County Meath, and his grave is marked by four trees, representing his 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 his legendary four wins in the Hickstead Derby.

One year after Macken’s fourth and final Derby win, a young Michael Whitaker had his first, riding Owen Gregory to victory in 1980. Owen Gregory had already been round the course with his owner’s daughter before Michael was given the ride – and 1980 was to be Whitaker’s first ever attempt at the class. “Owen Gregory was a good Derby horse, scopey, careful, and he wasn’t spooky. He just popped straight round it, I was very lucky to have a horse like that to ride,” says Michael, who was 20 years old and the second youngest ever winner after Marion Mould.

He then had an 11-year wait before winning the Derby again, this time with Mon Santa, and they went on to win three times in succession to equal the record. “He was an unbelievable horse, Mon Santa. He used to jump through the Devil’s Dyke every year and I don’t think he ever knocked it down. Jump him in a normal class and he felt like a normal horse, but jump in a class with a bit of atmosphere and he knew it, he always came up with the goods,” Michael says.

John Whitaker – who says that seeing Michael win the Derby was just as good as winning himself – didn’t have long to wait before he got to stand at the top of the Hickstead line-up. Three years after his younger brother’s win, John achieved the first of his four wins – unlike the other riders, all four of John’s wins were on different horses, with 21 years between the first and the most recent.

The first was with the legendary Ryan’s Son, one of the most popular showjumping horses of all time, who won the class once and finished runner-up a further four times. “We were very lucky to find Ryan’s Son, to find each other. He changed all our lives. He was a carthorse with a Thoroughbred engine. We suited each other. He wanted to do the job, he was careful, he didn’t have real top scope and power but he found a way of doing it. He was a very consistent horse in the Derby,” says John.

His next two wins came on veteran showjumpers Gammon and Welham – at 21 and 20 respectively, making them the oldest winners of all time. “I had jumped Gammon in the Derby in the past and done well but never won. When he was 17, I gave him to my daughter Louise to ride in Young Riders, and they won several medals together. The year he won, I had another horse in mind for the Derby but I had been practising over my Derby fences at home with her, and I remember saying to my wife Clare that I was struggling with the mare, and that realistically I didn’t think I had any chance. Straight away Clare suggested I took Gammon instead. I was unsure because he was 21, but I decided I’d do the Derby Trial and see how he felt. He just had two down, so I decided to put him in the Derby and he won it.”

Two years later, in the millennium year, John was back at the top of the leaderboard with Welham, who was 20 years old. Despite his veteran status, the pair came out on top of a three-way jump-off between Tim Stockdale on Wiston Bridget and the 1999 winners Rob Hoekstra and Lionel III. “Welham was the perfect Derby horse – he hunted and point-to-pointed as a young horse, and he loved those natural fences,” says John.

Whitaker’s most recent win came in 2004, riding Douglas Bunn’s homebred Buddy Bunn, a catch ride from the injured William Funnell. That year, the only other clear had been from his 18-year-old niece Ellen, but John was able to match it to create a jump-off. “He jumped the best clear round you’ve ever seen. I was delighted, but also really disappointed for Ellen,” he remembers.

It is fitting that John and Michael’s childhood hero Harvey Smith is among the famous five to have had four wins. Having been the first to set a record of three wins, which was then bettered by Eddie Macken, Harvey only had to wait until 1981 to catch up with a fourth title.

The first wins remain among the most iconic moments of the Derby history – and indeed the sport of showjumping, albeit in a controversial fashion! Harvey’s first win came in the 10th running of the Derby in 1970, riding Mattie Brown. It was part of a remarkable year for Smith, who won the Dublin Grand Prix and the King George V Gold Cup that same season. The following year, he was so confident of winning the Derby again that he didn’t bring the trophy back with him. “When I got to Hickstead, the first person I bumped into was Douglas Bunn, and the first thing he asked me was had I brought the trophy back. I said, oh no I’ve forgotten it, but it doesn’t matter because I’m going to win it again anyway.”

Douglas was unimpressed by this, and insisted the trophy be sent for. But true to his word, in the Derby Harvey set the standard with just one fence down, and had to jump-off against Steve Hadley. When he produced a fast clear to beat Steve, he rode through the finish, cantered a circle and flicked a v-sign towards Douglas in his Master’s Box. “That’s when Bunny and his cronies got the great salute,” says Harvey, whose transgression was caught by the BBC cameras.

A furore followed, with Harvey claiming he was making a ‘V for Victory sign’, but the organisers were having none of it – Harvey was disqualified and his first prize of £2,000 was removed. Eventually the matter was referred to the British Show Jumping Association, and the title and prizemoney were reinstated.

He won again in less controversial fashion in 1974, this time on Salvador. “He was a class showjumper, a little bit quirky, but all my horses were. But I remember he went down to Hickstead and annihilated them that day,” says Smith.

His final win came in 1981 on Sanyo Video, a horse normally ridden by son Robert who was on a month’s suspension. “The Hickstead Derby was the last class he ever won. It was the best ride I gave a horse round Hickstead. I picked him up and carried him the whole way round, he was 18 or 19 by then but he kept trying. He was a trier.”

With William Funnell now joining the ranks of the four-timers, we must now wait to see if anyone will break the record. Eddie and Harvey’s competitive careers are long over, but the Whitakers are still competing at the highest of levels, and are perfectly capable of coming back to Hickstead and winning it again.

“When I look back over all the Nations Cups and Grands Prix I’ve won, winning the Derby is the most important one,” says John. “When you win the Derby once, it gives you that hunger to do it again, and winning a fourth time was just as good as the first time.”

Michael Whitaker, who won the Derby Trial in 2017, is hoping to have another crack at the Al Shira’aa Derby. “It would be nice to win it five times, if I found the right horse I would definitely go for it. But I think Will Funnell is favourite to break the record, he’s got a real Derby horse in Billy Buckingham.”

Five great riders, four remarkable wins apiece. Their stories are part of the fabric of showjumping, and if any rider can go one better with a record-breaking fifth victory, it will be one of the most impressive achievements of all.

This article was first published in June 2019

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