You know summer is finally here when we at Sky Sports start planning for Hickstead and our live broadcast of the famous Equestrian.com Derby.
I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in all of our showjumping coverage from the start and this meeting is really special. Why? Well, the Derby is completely unique; it’s like the Grand National in horseracing, the Ryder Cup in golf, the FA Cup in football and the boat race in rowing. It stands alone in this ever-changing world.
I’ve grown up watching this competition, from the days of the incomparable Boomerang, who won the British Jumping Derby four times in the 70s under Eddie Macken. One of my early memories was seeing the big, white-faced Ryan’s Son and the evergreen John Whitaker prevail in 1983, and then there was the winning roll of Nick Skelton, who is still riding at the top level, in the mid-80s. More recently another Olympic Gold medallist, Peter Charles, has etched his name on the roll of honour winning it three times from 2001-2003 on Corrada. Then a horse we all took to our hearts, Mondriaan who won it in 2006, 2008 and 2009 under leading British rider William Funnell.
That’s the thing about the Derby, we love these horses, take them to our hearts for their trust, strength and courage to tackle a course that is as big as it is stamina sapping in the huge Hickstead arena. They jump fences that we rarely see nowadays, it is as if we are in a bygone era. This isn’t a track for the top Grand Prix horses and it offers sometimes a lesser-known horse and rider combination the chance to win on the big stage.
In my role as presenter of this great class I get a ringside seat, and as a horsewoman, I always imagine what it would be like to ride down the fearsome Derby Bank which is fence eight and nine in a 16-fence course. It stands at 10ft 6in (that’s 3.20m) and when you stand at the top of the bank and look over the edge, it feels like you are perching on the precipice of a challenging black run when skiing or about to set off on an awful theme park ride.
One of my guests during the show is international rider James Fisher, who has been down the bank many times (and in fact has a replica at home). He tells me of all the fences I could probably successfully negotiate in this course; the bank is maybe one of the only ones an amateur could jump clear. His reason being that the other fences are pretty big too and most people can ride down a bank! Now, James, I won’t be putting that to the test. I’ve seen horses jump straight off the top, come down sideways and on the odd occasion, backwards! This is a true test of trust between horse and rider and they have to have complete faith in each other.
Even the first fence, known as The Cornishman, is a 4ft 8in (1.42m) stone wall. Now I’ve jumped a few stone walls in my time having been brought up in the Peak District, but I think I’ll leave that to the expert’s thanks. There are numerous other challenges out in that 4 acre arena. The double of water ditches early on in the course at 3A & B, with water trays in front is up to height; 5ft (1.50m) in and 5ft2in (1.57m) out. Another of our experts is international rider and trainer Andy Austin who always told me when we were training that a white fence is harder for a horse to see. Well, take into account that these are tall white verticals and the water in the trays is Chelsea blue and you get the picture. The soul destroying element of a track like this is to have a fence down early, it’s an awfully long way to go carrying faults, but it’s also worth remembering that you can win this class on four faults, so you have to keep your composure. In its 53-year history there have only been 56 clear rounds.
Now we have seen many horses behave uncharacteristically at Hickstead and one problem can arise as the horses are ridden past the entrance to the arena as they want to head back to their mates! Ronnie Healey had a problem a few years ago when his horse reared up heading towards the privet hedge oxer, fence six, and incurred faults as a result. The oxer itself can be an issue as the hedge under the rails can sometimes make horses ‘bank’ the fence, i.e. put their feet down in the middle of this wide fence. That’s a heart-in-the-mouth moment for a rider and I’ve seen one or two jockeys on the floor at this one.
The riders don’t have time to catch their breath after the bank as the Devil’s Dyke looms at 10A, B & C. There’s another bright blue water tray under the middle element, which draws the horse’s focus down away from the big rustic rail in and another on the way out. Straight after that the riders have to get their horse to stretch as the Open Water is the next obstacle. Hickstead’s water is one of the widest in the world and what makes it even more difficult is the lack of a brush on the takeoff lip. There’s just a strip (white again!) and they are coming away from the entrance of the arena and collecting ring, so the instinct is to back off. As the course goes on some horses can start to get tired and that is another issue. Trevor Breen, who has two rides in it this year, has been galloping his horses to get them fit and the riders who have put that extra work in will feel the benefit as the course draws to a close. There is a double of (white) gates at 15A & B as they head back up the ring towards the last, a rustic spread that is 6ft6in (1.98m) wide.
Time allowed is also an issue and if a rider jumps clear, but gets time faults for going over the allotted time, it can be devastating. Sometimes in showjumping a class can become very predictable, with faults occurring at the same fence in most of the rounds. This is completely different with the potential for drama at each and every fence.
Taking all that into account, if there is more than one clear round they jump again over a shortened course. All I can say is that I’m delighted to be a spectator once again and my dreams of descending that bank are put on the back burner. There are many famous riders trying to get their names on the famous Boomerang Trophy again this year and it promises to be a thriller.
This class has a special aura surrounding it, the ultimate challenge, and a class that has thankfully been left unchanged despite the fast paced, modernity of our current lives. You can join us for the 54th running of the Derby, one of the most famous equestrian events in the world. All the drama is live on Sky Sports 1 on Sunday at 1.30pm.