Willam Funnell sets a new Hickstead Derby record with win number five

Sunday 23 June 2024

Willam Funnell sets a new Hickstead Derby record with win number five

It was nerve-wracking, nail-biting and tense, but Britain’s William Funnell broke records to land his unprecedented record fifth Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby victory in an edge-of-your-seats jump-off with a masterclass of riding Barbara Hester and Yoshiaki Oiwa’s Dublon.

“Last year, I thought if I won it, I’d retire, but the thrill of the Derby and the enormity of the day makes this such a special event and brings people to watch the thrills and spills of the sport, we are so lucky to have it,” said William.  “As a kid, it was something I dreamed of – now I’ve won it more times than Eddie Macken and Boomerang.”

William first won the Hickstead Derby in 2006 and won it again in 2008 and 2009 with Cortaflex Mondriaan and in 2018 with Billy Buckingham.

Twenty-two competitors set out over the iconic 16-fence, 23 jumping effort 1.60m course – which traditionally is virtually unchanged since its inception in 1961using only rustic or white fences – but clear rounds proved elusive this year.  England has endured an endless wet winter and the wettest June for decades, and the Bunn family and team had worked hard to prepare the ground for this event.  The Devil’s Dyke and the famous Derby Bank caused their fair share of problems, with the Bank cutting up more than usual.

“We had the wettest June with two inches of rain falling two weeks ago, which is why we only used half of the Bank,” pointed out Hickstead director Edward Bunn, commenting on the shrubs cutting off the full use of the steep side of the Bank.

Brazil’s Carlos Mota Ribas – a regular at the Hickstead Derby and joint winner of the Agrai Derby Trial with Juan Van’t Arkelhof alongside William and Dublon and Robert Whitaker’s Evert – was the first to come closest, jumping all the difficult fences but clipping the front bar of the privet hedge adjacent to the entrance at fence six.  

William had extra pressure after taking second and third on Dublon and Equine America Billy Diamo in 2023 to David Simpson’s Pjotr Van De Kruishoeve, amazingly supplying two clears in round one but faulting in the jump-off.  This year was his year, but it was not without breath-taking drama.  William was the most experienced Derby rider in the class this year, but it seemed his record-breaking fifth win was in jeopardy when he lowered the smallest fence on the course – the 1m vertical on the top of the bank.

“I’ve probably had almost every fence down on the course over the years, but no that one.  I knew I had the horse that was capable [of jumping clear], and obviously I knew ‘Don’t cock it up’!  We could have all jumped clear, but we all made silly mistakes,” said William.

William Whitaker was the third to complete the course on four faults with catch ride Flamboyant III, who he last rode almost 12 months ago.  The pair looked relaxed and comfortable the whole way round, only clipping the middle element of the Devil’s Dyke, coming home on four faults despite losing a shoe en route.

“I felt him [Flamboyant] slipping a little around the course, but luckily it was found straightaway, and we managed to get it put back on before the jump-off,” said William.

Carlos was first to go over the shortened course, but the first two elements of the Devil’s Dyke hit the floor and Juan Van’t Arkelhof also hit the second gate in the penultimate double to come home on 12 faults. 

It left the door open for William Funnell – but he had 2016 Hickstead Derby winner William Whitaker in the advantageous final draw behind him.  He didn’t show the pressure was getting to him and looked cool as a cucumber, and Dublon never looked like touching a fence.  They broke the finish beams a second slower than Carlos, but with that all-important clear.

“When Carlos had faults, I knew I had to do enough to push Will [Whitaker] and I knew he’d only ridden the horse for the first time this year on Friday.  Last year’s jump-off didn’t go so well, I was too quick to the Dyke and had it down coming out.  This year, I was very conscious of getting it right; I got the Dyke out of the way before making sure I was quick enough,” said William Funnell.  “I didn’t watch William Whitaker go but watched the livestream, which has a little delay, but I heard he’d had the Dyke down.  I ride for days like today.”

It was a nerve-wracking day.

“You always hear stories about the Hickstead Derby but when you walk the course and look at those big jumps at 10.30am in the morning, for the next three hours, you wonder ‘Why am I doing this?’, but it’s the thrill, it’s why we do it, it’s such a fantastic class; a spectacle – and my Dad backed me at 4 to 1 on Friday,” added William. 

The Centaur Z x Up To Date Miltoo 13-year-old Dublon joined William just over 12 months ago from previous rider Joe Stockdale.

“He’s a lovely horse to work with, a pleasure and very cool and with a good build; he’s a lot better than he gets the credit for,” said William.

In the final draw, William Whitaker produced the fastest time of the jump-off – more than seven seconds quicker than the winning time – but hit the first element of the Dyke and the first element of the double of gates.  He finished second on eight faults with Elliott Smith’s Flamboyant III, a quirky but bold, big-jumping 14-year-old by Cardento who won the Bolesworth Puissance jointly with Guy Williams’ Mr Blue Sky UK nine days earlier.

“He was a bit of catch ride, I only sat on him on Friday [for the first time in a year], but all credit to Elliott and his family for preparing him so well,” said William, who first rode Flamboyant two years ago in the Hickstead Derby, finishing sixth.  “Elliott had an accident a couple of years ago, which is how I first got the ride, and he was on good form to win the Puissance at Bolesworth. 

“All three of us had silly fences down in the Derby, but this morning, I certainly didn’t expect this – to take second place.”

Joe Clayton unluckily only had lowered one fence, the balustrade towards the end of round one, but picked up seven time faults on Unex Competition Yard’s Gentlemen VH Veldhof to drop down to sixth on a total of 11 faults, sitting behind the two eight faulters, Shane Breen (Fanfan De Beaufour) and France’s Emeric George (Dune Du Ru).

Image Credit: Boots and Hooves Photography / Julian Portch

 
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