Geoff Billington’s Hickstead Derby memories: ‘They had to dismantle the dyke to let us out!’

  • Ahead of the 60th running of the world-famous Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby on Sunday 26 June, we’ve been chatting to some of the past winners to hear their stand-out memories of the class.

    Here is what Geoff Billington, who won the Hickstead Derby in 2007 riding Cassabachus, had to say…

    First Hickstead Derby memory

    “In the early days, a show called Arena North always used to clash with Hickstead and I was always there – I never went for the Derby,” remembers Geoff. “But I remember watching John Whitaker with Ryan’s Son and Michael Whitaker on Owen Gregory. Back then, I was too frightened to say I wanted to do something like win the Hickstead Derby because it felt so out of my reach. Similarly, I never said I wanted to go to the Olympics because I never thought I’d have a horse good enough, or thought I was good enough to go. It’s only when it gets within your grasp that you start to think and believe.”

    First Hickstead Derby experience

    “I had many rounds before I ever got placed!” says Geoff. “I can’t remember my first time, but one year my horse wasn’t happy jumping the devil’s dyke and tried to dive between the post and the privet hedge – there was probably only about a foot gap in those days and they had to dismantle the dyke to let us out!”

    The time it all went right in the Hickstead Derby

    “Cassabachus was a fairly normal novice but I remember saying to Michael Whitaker, ‘I think this horse could win the Derby,’ and he said, ‘Have you lost your marbles?’” explains Geoff. “But he was very brave, rideable and he could jump big individual fences.

    “The first time he jumped it was in 2006 and he finished third. There were three of us in the jump-off, David McPherson had four faults, I tried to go quick and had eight faults, and the winner with a slow clear was Willy Funnell on Mondriaan. In 2007, the weather was treacherous and there were no clear rounds. They were talking about cancelling it. My pupil Andrew Mizon wasn’t even going to go that year, but his dad was my dentist and I was in the dentist’s chair one day and I said ‘You should jump that Irish horse [Special Diamond] in the Derby’, but he said the entries have closed. I said ‘I’ll sort that out, I’ll ring Lizzie Bunn!’

    “So I got him in, but he nearly beat me! He was in the lead for a long time with the only four faults until I jumped clear with a time fault and won. It’s a brilliant feeling.”

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