Some of the world’s leading riders will tackle the legendary Hickstead Derby course this weekend. To find out what it takes to triumph over these unique obstacles, we asked 3-times winner John Whitaker to guide us round.
Fence 1: The Cornishman, 4ft 8in (1.42m), a stone wall with rustic pole over
“The only time I remember it coming down was when I was in the jump-off with John Ledingham and he had it down.
“I tend to approach on the right rein, but it’ll depend on your horse.”
Fence 2: White oxer, 4ft 3in (1.30m) high, 6ft 6in (1.98m) wide white rails
“Although the oxer is not so big, it’s wide, so you have to make sure you have a bit of leg on. The trees underneath mean they can try to bank it, though. It’s easy compared with the rest of the course, but you can still have it down.
“In my very first Derby with Ryan’s Son I knocked it down. My heart sank — you still have a very long way to go!”
Fence 3ab: Double of water ditches, 5ft (1.50m) and 5ft 2in (1.57m) with water trays in front
“If it’s sunny, the white poles and the water really reflect, so it’s dazzling and they [the horses] do look down.
“You can’t gallop at it, but you have to get a good stride with a bit of momentum on your take-off.”
Fence 4: Gate, 5ft 3in (1.60m) vertical
“You don’t see many big gates in modern-day jumping rings, so it’s one of the many fences here it pays to practise over.”
Fence 5: Wall, 5ft 3in (1.60m)
John says: “This is probably one of the easiest on the course, going straight towards the exit gate. But it’s not small and I’ve seen it come down.”
Fence 6: Privet hedge oxer, 4ft 11in (1.50m) high, 6ft 6in (1.98m) wide
John says: “A right-hand turn away from the entrance, so the horses are backing off and you need to attack a bit. It’s wide and they can try to bank it — it’s caused a fair few tip-ups over the years, although I seem to have been all right.
“It’s one of those fences that, when you’ve jumped it, you think, ‘Good, it’s out of the way’. And if it goes wrong, you usually end up on the floor.”
Fence 7ab: Road jump, 5ft (1.50m) and 5ft 2in (1.57m) rails, with ditch behind then ditch in front and all set on a raised platform
“The only problem is, because it’s a closed obstacle, if you have a stop, then you’re in trouble.
“My tip is to jump towards the right-hand side because the field slopes a bit, so it’s much smaller on that side.”
Fence 8 & 9: Rail up, 3ft 5in (1.04m) rails on top of 10ft 6in (3.20m) bank and 5ft 3in (1.60m) white rails after
John says: “When you land over the road jump, you take a deep breath and compose yourself. I try to do the Bank in really slow canter or even a trot because you need to hop on, go up it, pop the little fence and then stop. You let them have a look and figure it out, but keep them going forward. It’s a very fine line between standing still and getting a fault.
“Even the top rail is a balancing act — you need a horse who’s listening to you. If you go too slow they can stop, if you go too fast you’ll gallop straight down the Bank. That’s happened a few times and the one who springs to mind is Annette Lewis on Tutein. It was like something out of a cartoon — she came to the Bank at full speed and came off it at full speed, landing in a heap. That was scary.
“You aim to come two-thirds of the way down, as that sets you up nicely for the two strides to the big vertical, but you’re in the lap of the gods a little bit. If you slide right down to the bottom, the two strides are very long. I’ve seen people do three and get away with it, but it’s nearly impossible.
“I’ve not really had a bad experience at the Bank, but I did land in a heap on Hopscotch one year.”
Fence 10abc: Devil’s Dyke, first two rails 4ft 9in (1.45m) followed by one set 4ft 8in (1.42m)
John says: “I like to get right up to the perimeter fence so the horses can see their way through it better. It’s such a difficult fence — it’s tall going in, you’re jumping into a hole, the horses are looking into the hole and forget the top rail. It’s your job to hold them together and make them concentrate on that top rail.
“Then it’s a big enough fence coming out, but when you’ve another 2-3ft from the dip it makes it really big.”
Fence 11: Open water, 15ft (4.6m) wide
“But you have to kick them on and get a bit of speed up for the water.
“It’s caused a huge amount of faults over the years, partly because there’s no brush in front of it. You have to be strong to jump it.”
Fence 12: Derby rails, 5ft 3in (1.60m) vertical
John says: “You immediately have to get your control back for these big rails. You take one fence at a time all the way round here — there’s no point trying to think about the rails while you’re still jumping the water. I’m not one of the people that aim for one of the verticals because if you hit that, it could be dangerous.
“Maybe it’s superstitious, but I always aim for the section just to the right of the middle. Whenever you walk a course you look for anything that might make it easier for you.”
Fence 13: Dry ditch, 5ft 1in (1.55m) with ditch in front of rustic rails
Fence 14: Ballustrades, 5ft 3in (1.60m) white rails
Fence 15ab: Double of gates, vertical followed by oxer, both 4ft 10in (1.47m) and second element 5ft 6in (1.68m) wide
“At this point, if you’re still clear, you’re just trying to hold it all together and stay cool.”
Fence 16: Rustic rails, 4ft 10in (1.47m) and 6ft 6in (1.98m) wide
John says: “You’ll have a quick look at the clock, then line up for the final fence. It’s going towards home, but horses tend to jump it a little bit left to right towards the gate, and it’s a big square oxer, so you’ve got to keep straight.
“You need a bit of pace because it’s big, but it needs to be controlled pace because it’s very easy to knock down. It’s just a case of trying to hold it together and get over it. Don’t panic! The crowd are close but you’re so focused you don’t see anything except that fence.
“If you’re clear it’s the best feeling in the world. The Derby is a real challenge — it’s you and the horse against the course.”
This year’s Equestrian.com Hickstead Derby meeting takes place from 25-29 June. Stay in touch with the action on HorseandHound.co.uk during the show.
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