William Funnell could make history at Hickstead

William joined Harvey Smith, Eddie Macken, and John and Michael Whitaker as a four-time winner of the Al Shira'aa Derby. Can he go one better?

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Surrey-based international showjumper William Funnell could set a new record this summer as he bids to become the first rider to win the Al Shira’aa Derby five times.

Funnell secured a hat-trick of Hickstead victories in 2006, 2008 and 2009 with the great Mondriaan, before adding a fourth win to his CV last summer with the homebred Billy Buckingham. In doing so, he joined an illustrious group of riders to have had four wins in Hickstead’s most iconic class, including Harvey Smith, Eddie Macken and brothers John and Michael Whitaker.

The first rider to achieve four wins was Ireland’s Eddie Macken, who won every year from 1976 to 1979 all with the same horse – Boomerang. So remarkable was their Derby record that Eddie kept the original trophy and a new one was created for subsequent winners. The Boomerang Trophy, which depicts the pair coming down the iconic 10ft 6in slope of the Derby Bank, has been presented to the winner of the Hickstead Derby ever since.

Harvey Smith was the next rider to clock up four victories, but it was his initial double on Mattie Brown in 1970 and 1971 that became one of the most talked-about moments in Derby history. A year after winning the class for the first time, Harvey returned to Hickstead without bringing back the trophy. Douglas Bunn, the owner of Hickstead, demanded it be sent for, but Harvey told him that it didn’t matter, because he would be winning it again. Although the trophy was eventually sent for, there was still some tension between the pair. But true to his word, Harvey produced the best round in the Derby jump-off to take the title, and after crossing the finish line he flicked a v-sign in the direction of Douglas in the Master’s Box – a gesture that did not go down well with officials!

Harvey won again in less controversial fashion in 1974, this time on Salvador, before adding a fourth win in 1981 on Sanyo Video, a horse normally ridden by son Robert who was on a month’s suspension.

The Whitakers are showjumping’s best-known family, and it is apt that both John and Michael Whitaker hold the honour of having four Derby wins apiece. In 1980, a 20-year-old Michael became the first of the pair to win the class, riding Owen Gregory to victory, and he later followed up with a hat-trick with Mon Santa, winning every year from 1991-1993.

Unlike the other riders, all four of John Whitaker’s wins were on different horses, with 21 years between the first and the most recent. The first was with Ryan’s Son in 1983, then he had a further two wins with the veteran horses Gammon (1998) and Welham (2000) – aged 21 and 20 respectively. His most recent win came in 2004, riding Douglas Bunn’s homebred Buddy Bunn, a catch ride from the injured William Funnell. John had only sat on the horse the day before his Hickstead win, yet he went on to produce one of the most impressive clear rounds ever seen in the Derby.

While Eddie Macken and Harvey Smith have retired from competition, the Whitakers are still competing at the highest of levels, and they are the only riders who could rival William Funnell’s bid to set a new Derby record – although it has been a few years since either had an entry in the class.

“It would be nice to win it five times, if I found the right horse I would definitely go for it,” said Michael. “But I think Will Funnell is favourite to break the record, he’s got a real Derby horse in Billy Buckingham.”

William Funnell’s talented 11-year-old gelding will have a strong chance of a repeat win if he is fit and well on the day, though the rider refuses to be overconfident. “With a horse like Billy Buckingham, there’s every chance we could win it a fifth time. But there’s more pressure this year because everyone is expecting we can do it again, and having been round twice without knocking a fence down the odds are he’s got to have a fence down one year!” he says.

History could be made in the 59th Al Shira’aa Derby, which takes place on the final day of the Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting (20-23 June).

Tickets are on sale now.

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