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. 

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The Hickstead Derby history book is full of shock wins and surprise twists – but sometimes, just sometimes, the class plays out exactly as expected. Take last year, for example. William Funnell was the pre-class favourite to win last year’s Al Shira’aa Derby. His horse, Billy Buckingham, had made his Hickstead debut 12 months earlier, coming straight from victory in the Eindhoven Derby a few weeks earlier. They had a superb round, leaving every fence standing and having just a moment of hesitation on the top of the bank to put them in fifth place on four faults plus a time fault. With such a promising first attempt, it was little wonder everyone expected them to be top of the line up the following year.

Billy Buckingham came back to Hickstead a more mature and confident horse, and this time he dropped down the Al Shira’aa Bank in textbook fashion and went on to finish clear within the time. Often a clear round is good enough to secure victory in the Derby, but having been drawn 18th out of 26, William still had to wait and see if any of the other competitors could match his faultless round.

They could. Holly Smith – another of the likely contenders, having finished third in 2017 – produced a lovely clear on Quality Old Joker to push William to a jump-off. In the second round, William and Billy Buckingham once again left all the fences standing, though a foot in the water left the door slightly ajar for Holly to go clear. But when Holly knocked the gate at fence three and Quality Old Joker also dropped a toe in the water, she retired and William was announced the winner – making him only the fifth rider in the history of the class to win a total of four times.

So how did it feel – joining the likes of Harvey Smith, Eddie Macken and John and Michael Whitaker? “It was lovely to equal those guys,” says William. “I remember seeing Eddie Macken winning for the fourth time and taking the trophy home afterwards, I grew up watching Harvey Smith, and John and Michael both really inspired me too, John especially really helped me out at the beginning. To be in the record books with them is really something.”

What made William’s win even more special was the fact he did it on a homebred horse. Billy Buckingham is by Billy Congo, described by the Funnells as the ‘flagship stallion’ for the Billy Stud, which William formed with business partner Donal Barwell nearly 25 years ago. The stud began with one Irish mare, Tatum, who was covered by top showjumper Animo and produced firstly Billy Orange, whose name became the prefix to all the Billy Stud horses, and then secondly Billy Autumn, a filly who would later go on to be the broodmare who produced Billy Congo.

More than two decades after that pivotal first foaling, the Billy Stud has grown to become a huge commercial breeding operation, with extensive facilities over three separate sites – Pippa’s yard and William’s yard, which are both located in Forest Green in Surrey, and Donal’s yard, which focuses on the foals and youngstock. The stud now produces 80-90 foals a year with many going on to have careers in top-level sport. “I’m very lucky to have Donal as a partner, he organises getting the mares in foal and does all the groundwork with the youngstock until they are three,” William explains. “Donal is a big importer of Irish horses so we were lucky to have a good nucleus of Irish blood in the beginning which we’ve mixed with the high breeds of Europe. The more experience we get, the better we’re getting, and the hit rate of breeding top jumpers gets better.”

While showjumping is the main focus, plenty of Billy horses have gone on to be top event horses – Pippa rode two homebreds at last month’s Badminton Horse Trials. “As Pip would tell you, primarily we are trying to breed jumpers, but we’re also trying to breed a sport type – in showjumping competitions have got faster, horses are jumping more often, so we need more and more blood. Event horses are a by-product of this,” says William.

Pippa has been an integral part of the Billy Stud’s success, helping to produce the horses and training the large team of stable jockeys, as well as competing some of the showjumpers herself – who can forget her runner-up spot with Congo in last year’s Science Supplements BHS Queen Elizabeth II Cup? Whatever a horse’s final career, they all begin their training in a similar way and will do plenty of flatwork as well as going cross-country schooling, to get them used to the idea of jumping natural obstacles – Billy Buckingham and his sire were no exception.

As father and son, they couldn’t look less alike – Congo is compact and black, Buckingham is huge and chestnut – but Billy Congo has undoubtedly passed his talent down through his genes. In 2013 William rode the stallion to team gold at the European Championships, he was a regular on Nations Cup teams, and he has amassed around three-quarters of a million pounds in prize money during his career. Buckingham, who was on the British team at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon last September, is certainly emulating his father’s championship credentials. He is not just a Derby specialist – like many of the Hickstead greats, Buckingham is a Grand Prix horse who isn’t remotely fazed by the permanent obstacles.

His scope is undeniable, but Billy Buckingham’s carefulness has meant he’s been caught out by the time. A single time fault kept them out of the jump-off in last year’s Longines BHS King George V Gold Cup, and though they jumped clear in WEG the pair did collect a few time faults. “The Derby suits him, because it’s all about getting in a good rhythm and giving the horse time to jump the fences. Having said that, he’s 11 and that’s not old, and he’s improving all the time – I think he’s stronger in his body this year.”

He’ll have a light competition schedule in the run up to this year’s Al Shira’aa Derby, focusing mainly on Nations Cup duties and only doing a handful of shows in the season, including Hickstead. So was he a horse whose Derby credentials stood out from the start? “Lucy Bunn produced him as a young horse and she jumped him in some two-star Grands Prix, and he looked like he was going to be a nice horse, but I didn’t think he would be a horse who would go on to win the Hickstead Derby,” says William. “But at nine years old, out of the blue, he jumped the only clear to win the Eindhoven Derby and at then at that point we thought Hickstead could be a realistic goal.”

Buckingham looks like a laid-back type when you see him in the ring, but that’s not always the case. “He’s sensitive and his mind can be all over the place. Sometimes silly things or noises can frighten him – Mondriaan was the opposite, he was so laid back. But now having really bonded with him, he really trusts me and that’s important for a Derby horse.”

Mondriaan, of course, was the horse who began William’s Derby domination, and gave him his long-awaited first win in 2006 – a victory that turned into a hat-trick in the space of four years.  “Mondriaan was a lovely horse, and I was very lucky he came along,” he says. “He was a real Grand Prix horse who also loved jumping natural obstacles.”

The third of the pair’s treble of victories came just two weeks after the death of Hickstead founder Douglas Bunn, a friend and supporter of William’s, and it is this win that stands out most in William’s memory. “I could almost hear him that day, saying to me ‘come on, don’t mess it up’,” he recalls.

Not only has William won the Al Shira’aa Derby four times, he’s come very close on several other occasions. In 1997, he finished runner-up after Comex knocked down the 1m high jump on top of the Derby Bank, in 2004 he lost out on the winning ride on Buddy Bunn after straining his groin, and in 2012, William jumped a clear in the first round with Dorada but ended up second to Ireland’s Paul Beecher after a jump-off. “There are a lot of unlucky stories in the Derby,” William adds. “With 21 jumping efforts, it’s common to have just one fence down that costs you the win. I’d always wanted to win the class and to have lost on Comex because of the smallest fence on the course was really tough.”

By now, William knows more than most about what it takes to win our most iconic class. He first competed in the class at the age of 17, when he took a tumble at the bottom of the Bank (though got back on to complete) and he is now 53, having had a Derby ride for most of the years in between. So can the farmer’s son from Kent, who has been coming to Hickstead since he was a child and who was once inspired to make showjumping his career by watching Eddie and Boomerang’s fourth victory, actually go one better with a fifth win?

“It would be lovely, but you never know what’s round the corner. There’s more pressure this year because everyone is expecting we can win it again, but having been round the course twice now without knocking a jump the odds are he’s got to have a fence down one year!” William says wryly.

But wife Pippa believes he could be the one to ride into history books with a fifth victory, whether that happens this year or at some point in the future. “I’m not being biased but the way he rides and the trip he gives the Derby course is exceptional and last year was amazing to watch,” she says. “I’d love him to win a fifth time, he’s very capable of it and it would be lovely to see him do it.” The crowds at Hickstead will no doubt be wishing and hoping for the exact same thing.

This article first appeared in June 2019

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