William Funnell: Where are all the Derby horses? [H&H VIP]

  • Every Hickstead Derby makes for a great spectacle, but this year was something special. Some early combinations made it look very difficult and it almost came down to a jump-off between the eight-faulters.

    But the head-to-head between Trevor Breen (Adventure De Kannan) and last year’s winner Phillip Miller (Caritiar Z, pictured top) made it so exciting — and what a story for Trevor’s horse. These are the tales that live on in Derby history.

    It’s just a shame we are a bit short of seasoned campaigners these days. Guy Williams’ former winner Skip Two Ramiro was jumping well but said he’d had enough, so it’s really only Trevor’s and Phillip’s horses who are knocking on the door every year.

    Harriet Nuttall’s A Touch Imperious and William Whitaker’s Glenavadra Brilliant have now benefited from a couple of trips round, while Nigel Coupe and Golvers Hill are the ones to watch next year — that horse certainly looks like he’s got a clear round in him.

    I was frustrated that my Derby horse Dorada was on the sidelines, but I couldn’t have been more chuffed with Billy Onslow, who is only an eight-year-old. He’ll benefit from the trip and next year will have more confidence. Hopefully I’m starting to make another good Derby horse out of him.

    Harvey knew how to do it

    But it takes time to produce a Derby winner — there’s no way I would expect Onslow to have jumped cleanly through the Devil’s Dyke first time. Even Mondriaan took a couple of years to work it out. No matter how much you train them at home — and I’d taken Onslow to Peter Charles’ and David McPherson’s, both of whom have replica Derby fences — you can never simulate the crowds and the pressure, so it takes them by surprise.

    When I was 17 and waiting to ride in the novice futurity at Hickstead, I spotted Harvey Smith sitting on his horse on the sidelines down by the Dyke — in those days there weren’t any cars parked round there. I was wondering why Harvey was taking such a keen interest in the young horses when suddenly he turned round, cantered two strides, popped over the rail into the ring, jumped through the Devil’s Dyke and popped back out over the perimeter fence.

    He was in and out of the ring in no more than eight strides and the judges were concentrating on whoever was jumping up the top of the main ring so didn’t even notice. It was brilliant. Very few pairs go in first time and win the Hickstead Derby, but perhaps we’re not as hungry as Harvey these days.

    Attracting more foreigners

    The Bunn family’s investment in the main ring and the new outside rings has really paid dividends. We got absolutely drenched in that storm on Saturday — it wasn’t just change the breeches weather, it was time to change the underwear too. But within half an hour the going in the International Arena was fantastic again.

    They were brave enough to make the investment and the reward has been that they are now turning away entries. There were so many in the Derby trial that it was the first time in ages that we’ve actually had to qualify for the Derby.

    The only addition I’d like to see to the Derby meeting is a world ranking jump-off class on the Saturday — particularly if we’re trying to encourage more foreign riders to next year’s show when it runs straight after Bolesworth International.

    It would make Hickstead more appealing for riders who don’t have a Derby specialist, or even those who want to bring both a grand prix horse and a Derby horse.

    Nations Cup pressure

    The Nations Cup in Rotterdam recently was a great result for a young team. I’m pleased at how much Spencer Roe and Jessie Drea have matured this year and for Joe Clee to jump two double clears in a row at “super league” is no mean feat.

    But there will be a different pressure in Falsterbo this week when it counts for points and Rob Hoekstra has been quite brave in his selection. Joe has even more pressure now as, the way he’s riding, he’s lining himself up for a place at the World Championships.

    Billy Congo, unfortunately, is coming back to fitness just a bit too late for me to be in contention for the Worlds, but the great news is that my wife Pippa has been selected for the British eventing squad with our home-bred Billy Beware. One out of two certainly isn’t bad.

    This column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (10 July, 2014)