Two of this year’s hot favourites to take the Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby opted to share the spoils in the Derby trial and save their horses for the main event, after jumping the sole clear rounds.
William Funnell and Equine America Billy Diamo were the first to leave the fences standing round this Derby-qualifying track, which includes pared-down versions of the famous Derby fences, including the bank and Devil’s Dyke.
He was joined at the top of the leaderboard by Harriet Biddick and her Derby legend A Touch Imperious — who has a phenomenal track record round the course, jumping clear rounds in 2017 and 2019, but has never won.
The shared victory was a waypoint in an emotionally-charged week for the pair. As William aims for a Derby victory on Sunday (26 June) with 12-year-old first-timer Billy Diamo, his mother will be on his mind.
“It’s actually very poignant for me, because my mother was looking forward to coming this week, and unfortunately, she died last week,” he said. “She would have loved to have been here. Hopefully she’ll be there with me on Sunday and help me to get it done.”
William is one of an elite group of five riders who have won the Derby on four occasions. His first three wins were with the great Mondriaan, who took home the silverware in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
William’s last Derby victory was in 2018 with the imposing chestnut Billy Buckingham, who was lost prematurely following a freak accident at home in 2020.
“[Billy Diamo] is more similar to Mondriaan than Billy Buckingham. They’ve all been big horses, but all quite blood in their own way,” William said.
Although William has never won the Derby on a first timer, Billy Buckingham won it on his second attempt, having lost out because of a minor step back on the top of the bank the first time round.
“[Billy Diamo] is a big, honest horse, and today it was nice to go and get a bit of confidence for Sunday,” he said.
“I actually jumped the Derby trial on him as an eight-year-old; he had the gate down, but otherwise had a great round. Then I was on nations cup duty with him, and he was on the shortlist for the Games with him last year, so he’s a good grand prix horse in his own right.”
Harriet, meanwhile, must have wondered whether the now 18-year-old “Henry” would set foot on Hickstead’s historic turf again, after he suffered two consecutive injuries that put him out of action for two years.
The lay-off coincided with two cancelled Hickstead Derbies during the pandemic but in recent weeks the 17.2hh Irish gelding has made a comeback, displaying his characteristic, careful consistency.
“He’s kind of exceeding my expectations, because he was clear yesterday in the 1.45m [Stoner Jeweller’s vase] and then he jumped cracking today. I didn’t feel I gave him the best ride, and I thought he was very, very genuine to me.
“Hopefully on Sunday I’ll kick myself into shape a bit more, but what will be will be,” said Harriet, who remains pragmatic about the significant burden of expectation on her shoulders.
“It would mean a lot to win, but actually, he owes me nothing – as a horse he’s achieved far more than I could ever have imagined, and I’ve had an amazing career on him. He’s 18 years old now. He can’t do any more and I can’t do any more, so everything we do now is a massive bonus.
“Coming to Hickstead just lights him up and I am lucky I have a lot of people behind me. We’ll just have to see what happens on Sunday.”