Even superstars get nervous

A brush with equestrian royalty …and how not to watch a showjumping class.


Hickstead Derby bank

Sunday brought about an unintentional brush with equestrian royalty, when I was sitting in the stands watching the 2017 Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby. (That’s showjumping to the uninitiated, and involves a descent down a gargantuan grass bank…see above.)

Oh my god I’ve just looked up the height of the bank – Wikipedia (that ever-reliable source…) says the drop is 10ft 6in – that’s 3.20m! They must be mad.

So in conclusion it’s not for the faint hearted. And in a stroke of luck this internationally-renowned spectacle is local to me.

But aside from extolling the event’s virtues, this year’s Derby class was a fantastic one to watch, with thrills and spills a-plenty in the first half, and a gripping competition in the second, which saw Nigel Coupe and Golvers Hill (pleasingly known as Ricky at home, and pictured above), narrowly claim the title from fellow GB rider Harriet Nuttall.

The really exciting part though was not watching the crazy showjumpers (and one eventer – go Elizabeth Power!) tackle the legendary Derby course, but my brush with actual equestrian legend Michael Whitaker.

I was sitting with friends, gripped by the action, when a lady asked if she could sit in the spare seat next to me. Obvs I said yes. And I sort of noticed her Yorkshire accent in between gasping, clapping and occasionally weeping (for that is what I do when I watch equestrian sports, strange but true. Totes over-emosh.)

Now everyone’s an expert from the comfort of their sofa/seat, including me. Except it should be said that my exclamations-to-self are probs a bit louder than everyone else’s, as is my inimitable style. (Irritating but also inevitable).

Armchair expert

So I was giving my (ignorant) opinion on what was happening in the ring, and exclaiming that a rider had lost a stirrup, loudly informing all those around me of this, (in spite of the fact that we all had the same view and they could see just as well as me).

Then the Yorkshire lady (who I now know is called Melissa) quietly told me that his martingale had in fact come undone, which it had.

My friends and I were then discussing (too loudly in my case) why so many horses were balking at the white wall of the road jump, just before the afore-mentioned bank of doom. We concluded perhaps the light was glaring off it, there was something distracting in the crowd, or they were napping past the entrance.

Melissa quietly came to the fore again and said that a lot of this year’s entrants hadn’t jumped a derby course before, and that the fence had appeared in the Derby Trial class (which Michael won), but not the Speed Derby – so some horses had jumped it before but most hadn’t. (The facts might be the other way around there…as I mentioned I never let a lack of solid facts get in the way of a good yarn).

I thanked her and asked if she was involved in the sport, as she seemed to know what she was talking about. She told me she was Michael Whitaker’s wife, (cringe) and I then realised he was sitting in the seat behind her, (cringe again) probably cursing inwardly at my ignorance. C’est la vie!

Michael Whitaker

In truth I think thankfully he was too focussed on the action to listen to my drivel. So when he went to the loo (which I noted he did a few times), I asked her if he or she ever got nervous. She said they both did, but she tried not to show it. She seemed lovely.

When he returned I could see that his hand wasn’t as steady as it might be, holding the programme, and I found this strangely reassuring. I compete my horse at a far inferior level, but there’s something comforting about knowing that even superstars like Michael Whitaker get nervous.

I also enjoyed his brusque Yorkshire commentary on proceedings…having actually realised he was there. He is a man of few words, and the ones he does utter are fairly difficult to understand for a softie southerner like myself. I wouldn’t like to betray his views on the other riders, but let it be known that he has an excellent sense of humour.

Michael unfortunately retired his horse Gentlemen VH Veldhof (pictured above) half way around the course, but even I could see this had nothing to do with nerves.

I later saw him interviewed on Hickstead TV by Daisy Bunn off-of the Bunn family, what-own Hickstead – he was there with about six members of his family, who together form something of a showjumping dynasty.

So it turns out the whole family do the gruff Yorkshire grunting thing. It’s hereditary. They seemed like a cheerful bunch though, which I was able to ascertain only from their expressions, as god only knows what they were saying.

As an aside, Harriet Nuttall, who jumped off against Nigel in a nail-biting finish, gave her horse a fantastic ride, and I wasn’t alone in the stands in feeling slightly miffed that she didn’t win, despite having the fastest clear in the first round. But them’s the rules and Nigel was certainly a worthy winner – and a GB one at that.

I’d like to pretend that this experience has taught me a valuable life lesson and I will keep my views to myself in future. But tbh that’s not happening any time soon. Soz.