Rider’s lifetime dream realised as eight-year-old stallion takes superb Hickstead Derby win

  • David Simpson said words could not describe how it felt to realise his long-held dream of winning the Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby – after he and the eight-year-old Pjotr Van De Kruishoeve triumphed in a three-way jump-off.

    David and the Dutch-bred stallion – who won the seven-year-old championship at last year’s Derby meeting with David’s wife Louise – tipped just the Derby rails to finish on 90.48 seconds, ahead of William Funnell and Dublon, who had cleared everything but the middle part of the Devil’s Dyke to finish on 91.68 seconds. William was also third on Equine America Billy Diamo, whom he retired in the jump-off.

    “He’s incredible,” David said. “I came here in 2007 to work for Shane Breen but before that, from as young as I can remember, when you talked about showjumping, you talked about the Hickstead Derby. So to lift that trophy – words can’t describe it.”

    William had looked on very good odds to take what would have been a record fifth Derby victory; his first-round clear on Billy Diamo was a masterclass in jumping the course, foot-perfect from start to finish, to the delight of the crowd. It was still the only clear when he came in on Dublon, 15 horses later, and produced an almost carbon-copy round. It looked as if William could have won not only his fifth but his sixth title in one go – until the next rider, David, came in. The athletic stallion took every fence in his stride, jumping the Derby course for the first time as if he had done it 20 times before, crossing the line to a roar and setting up the jump-off.

    First in Billy Diamo (pictured, below), a big chestnut gelding reminiscent of, but not related to, William’s 2018 winner, the late Billy Buckingham. They started in style, smooth and controlled, but then the black gate went, and the back rail of the privet hedge. Having tried his hardest in the first round, perhaps the heat of the day got to the big 13-year-old gelding; after the first part of the Devil’s Dyke and the second of the double of gates also fell, William called it a day.

    William FUNNELL riding EQUINE AMERICA BILLY DIAMO in The Al Shira’aa Derby during The Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting held at The All England Jumping Course in Hickstead near Burgess Hill in West Sussex in the UK between 22-25 June 2023

    He was back in with Dublon, who finished joint third in the Windsor puissance with Joe Stockdale last month, and the 12-year-old looked confident and full of jumping, putting in huge leaps over the double of gates and the last oxer to finish on just the four.

    And in came David. To a hoarse bellow of “Come on Ireland!” from the members’ enclosure, after which the proverbial pin would have clattered to the ground, the stallion looked fresh and full of galloping from start to finish. As he cleared the last and checked the clock, and the crowd rose to its feet with a roar, David not only removed his hat but hurled it skywards, grinning from ear to ear as he patted and patted his incredible horse.

    “We call him Albert Einstein as he’s so clever,” David said afterwards. “When we backed him at three, he rode just the same as he does now. He knows what you want to do before you even ask him; he’s incredible.”

    David said he remembers the first time he saw the horse, when he was a two-year-old, “like it was yesterday”.

    “We were looking at a lot of young horses,” he said. “There was a crack of light coming in [to the indoor arena] and every time he came to it, he jumped it. That’s what made me buy him as he stood out. He’s been special since we backed him; everything’s come easy to him.”

    David said that before the class, he’d have been delighted to cross the finish line with one or two fences down.

    “He’s eight, it’s his first trip round; it just shows his incredible brain,” he said. “He delivers every time. He’s an amazing horse and we’ll see what the future holds for him, but this is an amazing day and about celebrating the horse, and how great he is.

    “And thank you to Will. I had all the time with Shane, which was incredible, but doing a bit with Will and having someone who’s sometimes maybe too critical! Has been so good for me. Thank you.”

    William has now jumped five of the 68 Hickstead Derby clears ever jumped, a record he holds jointly with John Whitaker, and he is the first rider to have jumped clear twice in one year.

    “I’ve now got to hang around for another year to try for a fifth one!” he said. “David’s part of the Billy Stud team, and rides for us, and I thought I was getting a bit old for catch rides at 57, plus Dublon’s a bit strong so I said to David ‘Maybe you’d better ride him’. And then I gave myself a kick.

    “They both jumped great; I thought with the heat, was I going to get round twice? And Billy Diamo gave it everything in the first round; he’s a big horse in this heat. But at least with the other one, I gave David a run for his money. I wasn’t favourite, with two of the biggest, slowest horses in it, but it made for a good class, and I’m chuffed with both of them.”

    William said he swapped a “nice young horse” for Dublon (pictured, above), with Joe, before Windsor, giving the reins back for Joe to jump the puissance, then had since put in some practice on Derby-type fences with the 12-year-old.

    “He’s a big, scopey jumper and the more I’ve done with him, the more I’ve liked him,” he said. “I lost my stirrup at the gate in the Derby trial and everyone thought I was being clever, reining back before the dyke, but it was because I’d lost my stirrup and was too scared of falling off! It’s always nice to have a good Derby horse, and you’ve got to be in it to win it. I’ve been in a few jump-offs that have gone my way but you can’t win them all. Well done, David.”

    Three combinations who had been on good odds before the class had bad luck in the first round; 2022 winners Shane Breen and Can Ya Makan, who looked the picture of health and form, tipped the first part of the double of ditches, then the fence on top of the bank. Having also knocked the first part of the Dyke, after which they were not in a position to jump the second part, Shane elected to retire. Last year’s joint runners-up Carlos Eduardo Mota Ribas and Trix knocked the fence at the bottom of the bank, then the first two parts of the dyke and the second of the double on gates to finish on 16 faults. Dermot Lennon and Gelvins Touch, also joint runners-up last year, took the back rail off the privet hedge, the second part of the dyke, the cream oxer and the last fence, also finishing on 20.

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