A thrilling competition for the world famous Hickstead Derby has resulted in 19-year-old Irish showjumper Michael Pender being named the youngest ever winner in the 59-year history of the event.
In his first attempt at the historic competition, Pender from Co Kildare, and his 12-year-old gelding Hearton Du Bois Halleeux, produced the only double clear round to take the win.
The Irish teenager – three months short of his 20th birthday – joins an illustrious list of Irish names that includes Seamus Hayes, Paul Darragh, John Ledingham, Eddie Macken, Peter Charles, Paul Beecher, and Trevor Breen, to become the eighth Irish rider to have won the historic Hickstead Derby. Pender lifted the coveted Boomerang trophy, named after the horse that won the Derby four years in-a-row with Eddie Macken from 1976 to 1979.
After collecting the £34,650 first prize, Pender said the achievement hadn’t sunk in.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet, but it’s what every rider dreams of that comes here.
“He [Hearton Du Bois Halleeux] has done a lot of puissances, but this is the first time I’ve done something like this with him. It means so much to win this – there’s so much history to the class, and so many good riders, and I’m just speechless,” Pender said.
“Getting up this morning, you don’t think it’s ever going to happen. I knew the horse wasn’t going to be very fast in the jump-off, so I knew I needed to try to go clear and put the pressure on Harriet. That’s what I did, and it paid off.”
A thrilling first round saw three combinations jump clear over the unique set of Hickstead fences to set up a jump-off. Tipperary’s Shane Breen was first to go in the decider and was hoping to emulate his younger brother Trevor who is the most recent Irish Derby winner, having lifted the trophy in 2014 and again a year later. Breen finished with two fences down second time out with the stallion Golden Hawk to leave the door open to those who followed.
Pender opted for a cautions round when second to go with Hearton Du Bois Halleeux, who is owned by Paul Van Den Bosch. He crossed the line clear to put pressure on Britain’s Harriet Nuttall who was last to go with the Irish Sport Horse A Touch Imperious. A foot on the tape at the water fence saw them finish second with four faults meaning Pender would be crowned champion, sparking wild celebrations.
Nuttall has come tantalisingly close to winning every year since 2014, having never been out of the top three. But, again, the Somerset rider, had to settle for runner-up spot for the fourth time.
Third place finisher Shane Breen – who now has two extremely good horses to aim towards next year’s Al Shira’aa Derby – gave credit to his fellow competitors. “I feel sorry for Harriet; she’s been fantastic for so many years, but I’m delighted for Mikey,” he said.
Last year’s winners William Funnell and Billy Buckingham had one fence down to finish fourth equal with Graham Gillespie and Andretti H.
Pender followed in the footsteps of Britain’s Michael Whitaker by winning the Al Shira’aa Derby at his first attempt, something that hasn’t been achieved since Whitaker’s win on Owen Gregory nearly 40 years ago.
Marion Mould (1967 winner) and Michael Whitaker (1980) were both 20 years old when they won the Hickstead Derby, with Marion just a few months younger when she took the title.
Elizabeth Power, Ger O’Neill, Richard Howley and Shane Breen with his second horse Can Ya Makan, were among a group of five Irish riders who finished in equal sixth place on eight faults in the first round.