Hickstead’s heritage: it’s a family affair

PUBLISHED: 13:32 24 July 2013 | UPDATED: 13:32 24 July 2013

Hickstead director Lizzie Bunn

Hickstead director Lizzie Bunn

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Hickstead director Lizzie Bunn tells Andrew Baldock about overcoming adversity and running some of the biggest events in the showjumping calendar

Lizzie Bunn is not losing her marbles, so please rest assured that there is no need to question her sanity when she makes the following statement: “We could sell up and have a few million in the bank each, but we probably wouldn’t be as happy.”

Rather than raise an eyebrow, the people of Sussex should raise a glass to the fact that the Bunn family continues to mean business at a time when cold commercial reality has turned up the heat on a sporting institution as revered as Hickstead’s All England Jumping Course.

For more than 50 years, since the day that Lizzie’s late father Douglas saw his vision become a reality, establishing what was effectively a home from home for British Showjumping, Hickstead has retained a seat at the sport’s top table. The British Jumping Derby Meeting and Longines Royal International Horse Show remain key dates on the world’s equestrian calendar, yet the fact that this summer’s Derby went ahead on 23 June without a title sponsor underlines just how tough the working environment has become.

“Before Christmas, the future looked very bleak,” said Hickstead Director Lizzie. “As a family, we already support Hickstead to the tune of £300,000 annually, which we are happy to do, but with no Derby sponsor and no confirmed backing of the Nations Cup we would have had a further £500,000 deficit, which we couldn’t have sustained even for one year.

“We did say to several people at Olympia in December that unless a Nations Cup sponsor was found, we wouldn’t be running this year, but then thankfully Longines came to the rescue with a fantastic five-year deal encompassing the King George V Gold Cup, title sponsorship of the Royal International Horse Show and presenting rights for the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup. This certainly gives us a degree of financial stability.”

One of a kind

Ever since the Derby was first staged in 1961, it has been an event – perhaps more than any other – that riders have viewed as the one to win, a title to be cherished, a tale to tell the grandchildren. The Derby’s roll of honour proves it, with names like four-time winners Eddie Macken, Harvey Smith, John and Michael Whitaker taking pride of place from other multiple Derby champions such as 2012 Olympic gold medallists Nick Skelton and Peter Charles, Will Funnell, Nelson Pessoa and Paul Schockemöhle. When Guy Williams won the 50th anniversary event in 2010, his preparation with Skip Two Ramiro included building and utilising a replica Devil’s Dyke at his yard in Kent. That is how much it means.

Television racing and equestrian presenter Clare Balding once described the Derby as such: “It is one of those events, a bit like the Grand National, where it’s not just the runners and riders that make the headlines but the course itself. It is an iconic showjumping contest, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else in the world. No other course asks this much of a test of horse and rider, and no other course creates this type of drama.”

The annual Derby staging, though, complete with its iconic Devil’s Dyke – three fences in short succession with a water-filled ditch – and the Derby Bank – a 3ft 5in rails jump on top, followed by a 10ft 6in slope down the front – and a £111,000 prize fund is not something that should ever be taken for granted.

Upholding tradition

“This ongoing economic recession is really not helping anybody,” Lizzie continued. “We had hoped, off the back of Greenwich and winning all the medals, that we would see a surge in support, but that hasn’t materialised. Equestrianism came out of the Olympic Games really well, but I just don’t think the money is about at the minute. We’ve got a few leads to follow up, but none that will come to fruition this year.

“Unfortunately, we lost Carpetright [the most recent Derby title sponsors] late last year when we had already committed to building a new all-weather arena to replace Ring 4. Just because Dad started Hickstead, we can’t rule it with our hearts; we have to try to rule it with our heads. You can’t fritter money away for the hell of it. Most of the six of us [Bunn brothers and sisters] are based here – Edward, Chloe and I live on site; John lives virtually on the estate; Charlie and Daisy come and go between here and London – and all of our children grow up here together. It’s like a big commune, and it is the glue that keeps us all together.

“In recent times, people have realised how much we’ve done – certainly how much dad did. I think a lot of people thought that when dad died [in 2009] that maybe that would be it, but we are all committed to helping Hickstead go for another 50 years, hopefully.

“I think it is as tough as it has ever been. We had a difficult year last year. Because of the Olympics, we had to run the Royal International two weeks earlier, which meant it took place during term-time instead of the school holidays, and we only had two-and-a-half weeks between the shows. This, and two extremely wet shows, meant our gate figures were significantly down.

“Unfortunately, when the weather is against us, not only is our income affected but the costs are higher too. We had to employ tractor drivers from local farms on 18-hour shifts, and the firm that keeps all the runways swept at Gatwick Airport came down with their mud-buster machines and worked around the clock to keep the roads clear. Altogether it cost us an additional £30,000, but we really shouldn’t complain when so many poor organisers were forced to cancel altogether.

“Now that the International Arena performs so well under any conditions, and with two all-weather arenas we can call on now if necessary, hopefully we can cope with whatever the British summer throws at us in the future!”

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