Top Speed

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

By Victoria Goff

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Matt Sampson’s first Speed Derby win in 2017 was somewhat of a surprise. He was on a catch ride, for a start, with Matt only being asked to compete Topflight True Carlo the day before the class. He was drawn early, and the field included two former champions, including Harriet Nuttall and Silver Lift, and Guy William’s prolific Caspar De Muze, although in the end no one could catch Sampson’s time.   

A year later, and it was a different story. Matt had officially been given the ride on Topflight True Carlo, and had time to get to know him. He’d been able to study the video of his winning ride, working out where he could push him and where he needed to take a check. “Our first time, I didn’t know him too well so I went in blind and just went as fast as I could. It was a lot more pressure the second time to be honest,” he says.

As the final rider to attempt the course, it was a case of saving the best for last as Matt and Topflight True Carlo shaved 2.39 off the leading time to lift the title. In doing so, he became only the fifth rider in the history of the Speed Derby to have back-to-back wins.

As Matthew returns to Hickstead this week with the hope of lifting the trophy for a third consecutive time, we look back at some of the best moments in the history of the British Speed Derby.

Joe Turi does the Derby double

Hungarian-born Joe Turi came here as a penniless asylum speaker who didn’t speak English, and worked his way up to the very top of the sport of showjumping. His Speed Derby win came in 1989, in the third running of the class, riding Mill Ruby. He came very close to becoming the first rider to do the Speed Derby/Derby double as well, but he had to settle for second behind Nick Skelton in the Hickstead Derby for the second year in a row.

The following year, Nick was aiming for what would be his fourth Derby win, and a hat-trick of victories for the great Apollo. But Joe finally got the better of the pair in the jump-off, lifting the famous Boomerang Trophy on Vital. It wasn’t quite a Derby double in the same season but it was within the same calendar year, and Joe did have the honour of joining the elite band of riders to have won our two famous Derby classes.

David Bowen’s hat trick

An Olympic silver medallist in 1984 and the Longines King George V Gold Cup winner in 1980, David Bowen also became the first rider to have back-to-back wins in the Speed Derby at the start of the 1990s, and in 1992 he set a new record with a third consecutive victory. He had come very close to having a four-timer, but he had to settle for second place behind Joe Turi and Mill Ruby in 1989. All three wins came courtesy of Delsey, who was bought as a five-year-old for just £1,450.

Nearly thirty years after his winning streak, the Bowen connection at Hickstead continues, with David’s son Simon the director of Andrews Bowen, the company that builds all of the All England Jumping Course’s all-weather arenas.


John Ledingham makes it three in a row

Immediately after David Bowen’s Speed Derby hat trick followed yet another three-timer, this time by prolific Hickstead winner Captain John Ledingham and Castlepollard. What was extraordinary about Ledingham’s winning streak from 1993 to 1995 is that it coincided with a double in the Hickstead Derby, making him the first person to win both the Derby and the Speed Derby in the same weekend, and the only person ever to win both classes two years running.

Such was John’s dominance in the International Arena at that time, for his final Speed Derby victory in 1995 he was already leading the class on Garraun and had himself to beat. But Castlepollard – who had been out on loan all summer and had only just been given back to John to ride – left every fence standing to finish in 93.88sec and take the title for a third time.

Interestingly, Castlepollard and John’s Derby winner Kilbaha were both bought on the same day – now that’s what you call a successful shopping trip.


The first Bunn to win

Douglas Bunn’s daughter Chloe was only 19 when she won the Speed Derby on her father’s Citi Dancer. She had come tantalisingly close 12 months previously, when she was up on time but just clipped the final fence to relegate her to second place behind John Renwick. 

Chloe also has the honour of producing a Derby winner – she competed Douglas’ homebred Buddy Bunn up until the end of 2003, before William Funnell took over the ride. William was due to compete in the Hickstead Derby the following June but after sustaining an injury he had to hand the reins over to John Whitaker, who duly won on his catch ride.


The Breens keep it in the family

Chloe is now married to Ireland’s Shane Breen, and together they run the equestrian side of the business at Hickstead Place. They hold the honour of being the first (and so far, only) husband and wife team to win the Speed Derby, with Shane taking the title on the aptly-named Royal Concorde in 2008. The pair set a new course record of 91.96sec, which would remain unbroken for nine years.

A year after Shane’s win, younger brother Trevor took home the trophy on Adventure De Kannan, a horse who would go on to win nearly every major title at Hickstead including the Derby in 2014. The pattern repeated itself in 2011 with Shane winning a second time on the chestnut mare Magic Fox, while the following year Trevor also picked up a second win with Beer Hunter.


Ellen’s double

Ellen Whitaker holds a number of Speed Derby honours – she’s the only female rider to have had two wins in this class, and she is the youngest winner of all having picked up her first victory at the age of 21.

Riding the little French bred gelding Henri De Herne, Ellen shaved more than 6sec off the leading time to take the title for the first time in 2007. Three years later, soaring temperatures and an early draw of third to go made things tougher for the pair, but they produced another clear round to take the title for a second time.


Maher hits the headlines

Ben Maher had a successful career in ponies, juniors and Young Riders before really making a name for himself at Hickstead. His remarkable streak began in 2004, in what was his Hickstead Derby debut with Alfredo, when a time fault dropped them to third place behind John Whitaker and Buddy Bunn, and Ellen Whitaker and Locarno. He made no such mistake the following year, when he became the first rider since John Ledingham to win both the Speed Derby and the Derby in the same year, and he was back at the top of the Speed Derby line-up in 2006, with both wins courtesy of Mercurius.

Since then Ben has gone on to be ranked number one in the world, win an Olympic and European gold medal, as well as claiming countless Grands Prix. But he always cites his Hickstead double as being the most pivotal moment in his career, having shot him into the limelight and given him some incredible opportunities.


A Grand effort

Only one man can list a Grand National, a Cheltenham Gold Cup and a Hickstead Speed Derby win to his name, and that’s Irish National Hunt jockey Robert Power. A successful former Junior Showjumper, Robbie then switched coloured poles for birch fences and spent many years race riding. He famously won the 2007 Grand National on Silver Birch, then briefly switched track during the summer off-season in 2012 when he came to Hickstead to compete in the MS Amlin Eventing Grand Prix, finishing third with his sister Esib’s former eventer, Doonaveragh O One. The following year, he produced a brilliant clear to win the British Speed Derby, again with Doonaveragh O One – a horse who has since jumped round the Hickstead Derby as well, first with Robbie, and then with Esib, who has had a number of top 10 finishes in the class. Since then, Robbie has concentrated on  racing, winning both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Punchestown Gold Cup in 2017.


The fastest Guy of all

The most successful rider in the history of the Speed Derby is Guy Williams, a notoriously quick rider against the clock. He won in 2002 and 2004 with the chestnut mare, Be Precise, then had another double in 2014 and 2015 with Casper De Muze, making Guy the only four-time winner in the history of the class. Returning as the reigning champion for his latest win in 2015, Guy not only lifted the trophy but he also broke Shane Breen’s course record, which had stood since 2008.

In 2014 and 2015 Guy’s win kept Harriet Nuttall in second place, but she finally scored that elusive win in 2016 with Silver Lift. She keeps coming very close to winning both the Speed Derby and the Al Shira’aa Derby, so could this year be the year a brand new Speed Derby record is set?

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By Victoria Goff

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