John Whitaker’s Hickstead Derby memories: ‘If ever there was a horse that was a certainty to win it, it was Welham’

  • Ahead of the 61st running of the Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby on Sunday (25 June), we’ve been chatting to some past winners to hear their stand-out memories.

    Here is what John Whitaker, four-time winner of the Hickstead Derby in 1983 on Ryan’s Son, 1998 on Gammon, 2000 riding Welham and in 2004 on Buddy Bunn, had to say…

    First Hickstead Derby memory

    “Stroller and the famous Harvey Smith V-sign – it was so controversial,” says John. “Harvey was always so good in the Derby and in those days they always showed it on TV.”

    First Hickstead Derby experience

    “I’m sure I jumped Ryan’s Son in it when he was seven and he only had two down,” remembers John. “I don’t think we practised at home beforehand, we just went straight in! But one of the faults he had was at fence two, which ended up being a fateful fence for him [where he fell shortly before he died in 1987] – he just always put his back legs down in it for some reason.

    “I can’t remember if we were placed that first year with eight faults, but I think in general horses get better every year and Ryan’s Son certainly improved every time. A bit later, I built a devil’s dyke and a bank at home and it definitely pays to practise – not such a steep bank necessarily, just something to give horses the idea of what they have to do. I think in general most people practise the fences now, it 100% helps.”

    The times it all went right

    “The four wins were all pretty special in their own way – and each had a story to them,” says John.

    “Ryan’s Son was obviously a great one because it’s a real milestone in your career. I can’t remember how many times he did the Derby, but he was very consistent and placed nearly every time.

    “Gammon was semi-retired and my daughter Louise had been doing young riders with him – she started riding him when he was about 17 and did very well in the Europeans and other good classes. That year [1998] I had a very good young horse, but it just wasn’t working out very well and I realised he had no chance in the Derby. My wife Claire said ‘Why don’t you take Gammon?’ It had never even crossed my mind to take him so I said ‘Is it fair on Gammon, is it fair on Louise?’ But Louise said ‘That’s fine, go for it!’

    “So I practised a bit at home, then he had one or two fences down in the Derby trial because he was just too fresh – he certainly didn’t feel like a 21-year-old, he felt more like an eight-year-old! So I certainly wasn’t worried anymore about him coping with the Derby at his age and he went in and won it.

    “Saying you could ‘enjoy’ riding the Derby on a horse like that probably isn’t the right word, but it is a good feeling. Because there is so much space between the fences, you have to stay focused – you can change your mind three times before you reach the next one! But when you’re on a roll on a good horse there, it also gives you time to tick off the fences and think, ‘I’ve done that one, I’m still clear.’”

    Derby bonus

    John continues: “Welham didn’t actually do the Derby till he was 17 or 18 because he had championship commitments, then won it when he was 20,” says John. “But if ever there was a horse that was nearly a certainty to win it I thought it was him, because he loved the big ring, big jumps, so he really deserved it.

    “The year he won it [2000], there was a £50,000 bonus if you could win the Hickstead and Hamburg Derbies, so I did Hamburg first. Welham stopped at the small fence at the top of the bank and it was the year they had changed a stop from three faults to four faults. He jumped the rest of the course clear and finished on four faults and there were no clears that year. So if it had been the previous year, he’d have won outright with three faults. Instead, I had to jump-off with Franke Sloothaak, who went clear and really, really fast. I set off to try to beat him, and I was quicker flying to the last fence, but he just touched it and it came down in slow motion, so as I galloped through the finish I could see it falling.

    “So I lost the class twice basically – and the bonus!

    “Fortunately in 2004, I’d only started two horses at the Derby meeting – you’re only allowed three, so when William Funnell realised he was injured and couldn’t ride Buddy Bunn and asked me to ride him, I could do so.

    “We did the Derby trial and things weren’t quite perfect, so I changed his bit and other small things. Then the night before, I was taken to see Mr Bunn to try to negotiate our share of the prize money – but he was having none of it! His only advice was ‘If you don’t ride like a prat, you’ll win’. I looked at Claire and thought we’re getting nowhere here, but I didn’t think we had a chance of winning, so there was no point arguing about the prize money.

    “In the Derby the next day, my niece Ellen [Whitaker] was the only clear and I was last to go – I don’t know how I got such a good draw, riding Dougie’s horse! I jumped clear, then she had one down in the jump-off and I jumped clear again.

    “You can’t hold back for anybody, even family, so I did feel sorry for Ellen when I jumped clear because the Derby is such a good one to win – I felt like I’d taken it off her a bit.”

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