William Funnell’s Hickstead Derby memories: ‘One of the best horses in the world was galloping loose round the ring’

  • On Sunday (26th June) the Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby makes a welcome return for its 60th edition.

    We’ve been chatting to some past winners to hear their stand-out memories. Here is what William Funnell, winner of the Hickstead Derby with Cortaflex Mondriaan in 2006, 2008 and 2009, and on Billy Buckingham in 2018, had to say…

    First Hickstead Derby memory

    “My father was jumping at Hickstead and I remember vividly the year Eddie Macken [pictured below] won for the fourth time and took the trophy home with him,” recalls William. “The weather was horrendous and Boomerang came out covered in mud – you could hardly see the horse. Eddie and Boomerang really made it special and those were the golden Derby years. You watched all the top horses in the world try to go round the Derby – I remember Jappeloup stopping going in to the dyke and Pierre Durand falling off, the bridle coming off and Jappeloup galloping loose round the main ring – one of the best horses in the world!”

    Eddie Macken and Boomerang in the Hickstead Derby

    First Hickstead Derby experience

    “I was 17 or 18 on my junior Europeans horse, who was only six or seven and my thinking was just to get round,” says William. “Cyril Light, who I worked for in those early days, had a dyke and a bit of a bank at home, so a lot of people used to come to practise beforehand. I walked the course with Derek Ricketts, who said his biggest mistake when he first went round was sitting too far back coming down the bank and getting left behind for the fence at the bottom. So with that in mind, I was making sure I wasn’t sitting too far back when the horse jumped clean off the bank. I ended up hanging round his ears at the bottom, before he put his head down and of course I slid the rest of the way down his neck. At that time you could hop back on and he jumped the rails and dyke clear. I finished with a cricket score but at least I got round! I knew I needed a more experienced horse though, after that.”

    The times it all went right in the Hickstead Derby

    “I finished second and third with Comex, and he was a good Derby horse – I’d won Falsterbo and Eindhoven on him – so I was pretty frustrated not to have won it,” reveals William. “The fence on top of the bank cost me jumping-off on him one year, but the dry ditch was his nemesis and he was always a bit careful there.

    “Then I’d been training Buddy Bunn for Douglas Bunn – our main focus was the Hickstead Derby and I think I won on the first day of Hickstead with him, but I tore my groin in the Derby trial, so John Whitaker hopped on to compete him on Saturday and jumped two clears in the Derby on Sunday and won. So my training worked! But if there was ever a year I was destined to win it, it felt as if it was that year.

    “So I’d been unlucky with Comex and Buddy Bunn and had started thinking I was never going to win it, when along came Mondriaan. Because I was doing Nations Cups on him, I don’t think I rode him in the Derby before he won. Steven Franks jumped him round the Derby trial the year after he won the Foxhunter final as an eight-year-old and he jumped very well. He was always very natural at that sort of thing.

    “Our first success in 2006 was very special, but 2009, the year Douglas Bunn died, was very poignant, very surreal,” says William. “Mondriaan was jumping really well and as we went round I could imagine Douglas saying, ‘Come on, don’t cock it up now.’

    “The better the horse and the better the chance you have, the more nerve racking it is – you’re just so worried about making a mistake. When you’re an outsider there’s less pressure.

    “There are 18 fences, so somewhere you need a bit of luck and some days it’s in and some days it’s not. There is a way to ride the Hickstead Derby course, so there’s less chance to it than many of the Derbies. I’ve been lucky that the two horses I’ve won it on have been grand prix horses and have both jumped double clear in five-star Nations Cups – if they’re good at the natural fences, you have a real head start if they can jump 1.60m.”

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