‘This is why I ride horses, for days like these’: Funnell’s fabulous fifth Hickstead Derby

  • “This is why I ride horses – for days like these,” said William Funnell, after he won a dream, record-breaking, fifth Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby title.

    William and Dublon triumphed in a jump-off of first-round four-faulters, against Carlos Eduardo Mota Ribas with Juan Van’t Arkelhof and William Whitaker and Flamboyant III,  jumping the only second-round clear to put William’s name firmly in the history books. He had previously won a hat-trick with the great Mondriaan in 2006, 2008 and 2009, then a fourth title in 2018 with Billy Buckingham.

    He had been part of a select group – the others Eddie Macken, John and Michael Whitaker and Harvey Smith – who had lifted the Boomerang Trophy four times, and came so close to surpassing them last year when he finished second on Dublon and third on Equine America Billy Diamo. He set a record then, as the first rider to jump the Derby clear on two horses, but it was the fifth title that had remained tantalisingly out of reach – until now.

    “It’s a great feeling to be here again, and winning it,” William said. “Last year, I thought if I can’t jump two clears and win it, I would have retired. But just the enormity of this class; cantering into the ring, the challenge of the course, it’s so special. It’s why I do it.”

    It had been a class full of faults, as is the Derby’s wont, and until Carlos and his own and K&R Horses’ 15-year-old came in as 18th of 22 starters, Shane Breen (Fanfan De Beaufour) and Emeric George (Dune Du Ru) were sharing the lead on eight apiece.

    But, as the riders agreed, each of the three four-faulters fell foul of a “silly fence”, and Carlos’s was the privet hedge at six. It must have felt like a long way home but the pair put in a polished performance, a copybook descent of the bank and faultless through all the hardest challenges of the course to get their noses in front.

    But not for long. William and Dublon came in 20th, to silence from the crowd who had been reminded of a record that could be broken. The pair were clear until the bank; William’s “silly fence” to knock was the rail on top, at 1m, 60cm smaller than most of the others.

    Hopes flickered briefly but William’s superb horsemanship came to the fore as he rode home like the Derby expert he is, setting up a jump-off – as long as no one else went clear. It was not the day of next in Guy Williams and Mr Blue Sky UK, but then came William and Victoria Smith’s 14-year-old, who William rode in the Derby two years ago as a catch ride after Victoria’s son Elliott broke a leg in the Derby qualifier.

    Their bad luck came at the middle element of the Devil’s Dyke but again, William rode beautifully to come home clear after that. And when last in Shane Breen, on Nows The Time, was eliminated at the dyke, the jump-off was on.

    Strong and confident

    First in Carlos and Juan were strong and confident, putting in a mighty leap over the white oxer at fence two, and taking the black gate on an angle. Carlos rode strongly to the privet hedge – that wasn’t getting the better of him again – and Juan was eating up the ground. But then the second and third elements of the dyke went down, and the second of the double of white gates.

    In came William and Dublon, to almost total silence; William cantering his turn to the dyke in practice, then straight to the Cornishman. He took the oxer at two on a beautiful curve, Dublon even and balanced and full of jumping, over the privet hedge and then clear through the dyke, the crowd willing him through. Could he dare to dream? The water, the rails, round to the last line, and a cheer, quickly hushed, as he cleared the double of gates, and took a final flyer over the last. The crowd cheered and cheered, and William grinned as he put a finger to his lips. He wasn’t there yet.

    William Whitaker started full of purpose, the huge bay fast and forward, and balanced in his turns. He was tight to the dyke – but possibly slightly too much so as the first part fell to seal the result. There was a shout from somewhere as William, ever the professional, finished a super round with just the second of the two white gates falling.

    “All credit to Elliott,” William said afterwards. “And his family, for preparing the horse as they did; we only decided I’d be riding him on Friday, so it was a bit of a catch ride again, if you like. The horse jumped fantastic today; I had that silly fence in the first round, but that’s what the Derby is all about. I didn’t expect this result, this morning, so I’m very pleased.”

    For the prizegiving, the crowd got to its feet for God Save the King and didn’t sit down again as William was bellowed round two laps of honour; hat in hand and grin from ear to ear.

    “The crowd was fantastic today,” William said afterwards. “It helps when you’ve won it five times – “How many?” asked William Whitaker, straight-faced. “Five,” William Funnell replied, equally deadpan – “But it’s a fantastic class, a spectacle.

    “It’s something that probably as a kid I’d have dreamed of, and now I’ve won it more than Eddie Macken and the great Boomerang. But that’s why I ride horses, for days like these.”

    William said that after some good luck in jump-offs, he had “had a couple of dodgy ones”, so his plan once Carlos had faulted was to try to jump clear and push William Whitaker into faulting as well.

    “I knew he’d only sat on the horse on Friday, and wasn’t sure how fit he would be,” he said. “I was a bit ugly into the dyke last year so I wanted to do that better, and then I just let him run.”

    Derby trial

    William shared the win in Friday’s Derby trial with Carlos, and Robert Whitaker and Evert who finished joint seventh on Sunday on 12 faults.

    “On Friday, people say ‘Your horse jumped great‘ – and my dad backed me to win at four to one! – but when you walk the course on Sunday, it’s still very tough,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do before you’re sitting here.

    “We all had silly fences and all could have jumped clear but we made it a good Derby. It’s so special; so many people who wouldn’t go to the Global Champions Tour come here and watch this and we need to make sure we keep it in our sport.”

    Carlos, who also shared the Derby trial win last year on Trix, finishing 12th in the showpiece, and came second in 2022 with Jella Van’t Kathof, said he will keep aiming for the win.

    “I don’t give up; I keep on coming,” he said. “I had a silly fault at the bush; in the Hamburg Derby, I nearly fell off at that fence so I think I pushed him a bit much, to have a silly fault before the most difficult fences. But it is what it is, and I’m really happy.

    “You learn something new every time you ride this course; you jump the trial then walk the course on Sunday, see these massive jumps and think ‘What am I doing here?’

    “But this is my passion and as long as I’m healthy and can ride, I’ll come back, and one day I’ll be sitting [in Will Funnell’s seat]. I might not do it five times! But that I promise you.”

    Shane and Emeric were joint fourth, and in sixth was Joseph Clayton and Gentlemen VH Veldhof, who had only hit the cream oxer in an otherwise textbook round, but who must have been slower than they appeared, as they notched up seven time-faults.

    Hickstead director Edward Bunn explained that half the bank was hedged off for the class, for safety reasons owing to the wet spring compounded by a recent downpour, then thanked the riders for another great sporting spectacle.

    “And now we have a GOAT [greatest of all time],” he said. “It’s official, William Funnell is the GOAT of the Derby.

    And so he is.

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