Why mum’s the word for Hickstead Derby contenders

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It’s been 13 years since Tina Fletcher won the Hickstead Derby, making her the most recent female rider to claim this iconic class.

Tina was also the first mother to ever win the class, but this year there are several strong contenders who are hoping to take part in the Al Shira’aa Derby, who all combine their careers in top level showjumping with motherhood.

Ellen Whitaker made her Hickstead Derby debut at the age of 18, when she produced a superb clear round on Locarno 62 to finish runner-up to her uncle John and his catch ride, Buddy Bunn, back in 2004.

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“Even though I was second, it is still down as one of the best memories in my entire showjumping career,” says Ellen. “It would mean a lot to me to get my name on that trophy, especially having been so near and yet so far in 2004.”

Harriet Biddick riding Galway Bay Jed in The Al Shira’aa Derby at The Al Shira'aa Hickstead Derby Meeting June 26th 2022 ~Picture: Elli Birch/BootsandhoovesHarriet Biddick riding Galway Bay Jed in The Al Shira’aa Derby at The Al Shira'aa Hickstead Derby Meeting June 26th 2022 ~Picture: Elli Birch/Bootsandhooves
Harriet Biddick riding Galway Bay Jed in The Al Shira’aa Derby at The Al Shira'aa Hickstead Derby Meeting June 26th 2022 ~Picture: Elli Birch/Bootsandhooves

The Yorkshire rider has had a few rides in the class in the years since, but she explains that you really need the right horse for the Derby. “It’s a long way round and a difficult task on a horse that’s not suitable for the job.”

This year she is hoping to compete with the former event horse Demi Louvo, who has evented up to four-star level, and also has Hickstead experience, having jumped round the Ashby Underwriting Eventers’ Challenge in 2022.

Ellen started riding the mare in January, and she quickly came up through the levels. “She’s so brave, nothing fazes her,” says Ellen, who won a 1.50m invitational in Spain with her. “I remember coming out of the ring that day and thinking, this could be my next Derby horse.”

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Since her Derby debut 20 years ago, Ellen has become a mum to two boys, who are now 8 and 10. “It would make it extra special if I did do well, having the kids in the crowd to watch a class like that. Now they’re a bit older and both do sports themselves, they understand more about what’s going on.”

Last year, Cornwall-based Sammie-Jo Coffin had an excellent round in the Al Shira’aa Derby, finishing seventh equal with Chaccomo Blue. Remarkably, Sammie-Jo had just given birth to her first baby a few months before the class.

“I had had a c-section, and I didn’t think I’d make it to the Derby, but we did a couple of county shows and I felt okay. We came to Hickstead with no expectations, but he jumped amazingly in the Derby Trial. I was quite weak, as it hadn’t been long since having Essie, and we were both a bit rusty,” adds Sammie-Jo, who is hoping to produce an even better result this year. “Essie is so easy, and she loves coming to shows. It’s great having her on the sidelines watching, she loves it.”

Harriet Biddick has an extraordinary record in the Al Shira’aa Derby – with A Touch Imperious, she has been runner-up five times and third a further two times. She’s hoping he might make a return to Hickstead this year after a minor setback 12 months ago, and she’s also hoping to bring Silver Lift II for the British Speed Derby.

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Harriet and her jockey husband Will Biddick have two children, Archie and his baby brother Oliver, who was born in December. “I’m so lucky to have a horse like A Touch Imperious who is clever on his feet and just figures things out,” says Harriet, who says her mindset hasn’t changed since becoming a mother. “For me, I’ve been really lucky – it hasn’t changed anything for me in terms of fears or anything like that. It is tricky finding the time and sharing the time between horses and kids, but I love both sides.”

The Al Shira’aa Derby is the feature class on the final day of the Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting (20-23 June). Tickets are on sale now.

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