John Whitaker, who is chasing a record fifth victory in the Hickstead Derby, opened this year’s meeting in the best possible way. The evergreen Yorkshireman took the opening International Arena class, the Bunn Leisure Derby Salver, with a wonderful round on a catch ride, Louise Minderman’s Give Me Remus.

There were only five clears in this speed class. The early rounds from Dale Burnham (Cointreau Z) and Tim Stockdale (Roland) led for some time, until Claire Robertson moved in front with as smooth performance on Retreats Uppercut. But late-drawn John set off swiftly on the 15-year-old Grannus stallion and some superb turns put him into the lead by more than 10sec.

Peter Charles took second place on the eight-year-old Murka’s Pom D’Ami, a horse he thinks a lot of, but they were still more than 8sec behind the winners.

“I went into the ring without any expectation of winning, but he started off so well that I thought I might as well have a go,” said John, who was asked to take over the ride two weeks ago and is now hopeful that Give Me Remus — who has already been second in the derby for Billy Twomey — might go well on Sunday.

“It depends on the weather, though,” said John. “The forecast isn’t good and, although the new drainage system here has done wonders, if we get more rain, the Derby course will take a lot of jumping.”

John’s nephew, Joe Whitaker, earlier booked his place in Saturday’s Speed Derby with a win the qualifier on Tinity, who headed this table C class despite added time for two fences down. Second place went to Ben Maher (Onassis), giving the reigning speed champion the chance to retain his title.

Ben opened the International Arena classes with a one-two in the Whitaker Equestrian Novice Futurity Championship on Akosie Du Wonderland and Time Out M.

The Equiport Grade B title went to Cumbria, courtesy of Simon Buckley and Silvano, while a great opening round from Nicole Pavitt and Maestro De Reine Peine captured the Equine America Young Riders honours.

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