Michael Whitaker’s Hickstead Derby memories: ‘I nearly had a heart attack when I saw how steep the bank was’

  • With the return of the iconic Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby fast-approaching (today, Sunday 25 June), we’ve been chatting to some of the competition’s past winners to hear their stand-out memories.

    Here is what Michael Whitaker, who won the Hickstead Derby at his first attempt in 1980 riding Owen Gregory, and in 1991, 1992 and 1993 on Mon Santa, had to say…

    First Hickstead Derby memory

    “We used to watch it all the time in the early days, it was one of the biggest classes in England at that time,” says Michael. “I really remember Harvey Smith sticking his fingers up when he won. After watching it on TV, I couldn’t get there quick enough to ride in it myself.”

    First Hickstead Derby experience

    “Well I did win it at my first attempt!” says Michael. “But my outstanding memory from that year is walking up the Derby bank for the first time and realising just how steep it was – I nearly had a heart attack! My brother John had ridden in it by this point and we’d talked about how steep it was, but it’s only when you get up there that it hits you.

    “I don’t think I practised at all before we went – [my ride] Owen Gregory had already been round a couple of times with his owner’s daughter, Ann, and he’d gone pretty well with her. Owen Gregory [pictured below] was just unbelievable around Hickstead. He must have jumped round at least 10 times and the worst he ever did was two down; he was second two or three times as well as winning. Even the last time I rode him round, he only had one down and he was 20 years old by then.

    Michael Whitaker and Owen Gregory winning the Hickstead Derby

    “Hickstead Derby horses have to be really brave but very careful at the same time, which is quite a difficult combination to find. What also surprised me jumping round that first time was just how big everything was – the gate and even the double of ditches – and I hadn’t jumped that many big classes at that age [Michael was one of the youngest to win the Hickstead Derby at the age of 20] so it seemed particularly big to me back then. The more you do it, the more you get used to it and you’re not so shocked by it, but the first couple of times I was definitely thinking ‘God, this is big’.

    “Winning such a big class at that age did great things for me.”

    The times it all went right in the Hickstead Derby

    “I think I then rode in it every year until I won on Mon Santa,” says Michael. “He shared the same qualities as Owen Gregory so I had two real belters of horses. I enjoyed riding him round there a lot more than some of the horses I rode after him anyway! But we never used to practise at all with Mon Santa – the only time he ever jumped a devil’s dyke was at the Hickstead Derby, but I don’t think he ever knocked it down.

    “His third win really stands out as it rained so much they had to pump water out of the devil’s dyke. He went round for one down but everyone else had more than two down, it was that bad. He came out looking like he’d had a mud bath with his overreach boots upside down and tendon boots all over the place, but he just battled his way round.”

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