Legingham reign ends as Pessoa wins


CAPTAIN John Ledingham's two year reign in the Silk Cut Hickstead Derby was broken yesterday by 60-year-old veteran, Nelson Pessoa of Brazil, who previously captured this $120,000 show jumping classic in 1963 and '65 and has won an unprecedented 24 Derbies in his long career.

However yesterday's triumph, enacted in front of a record crowd of 18,000 spectators at the Sussex showgrounds, must rate amongst the most memorable and earned the Brazilian a paycheck of 540,000, as against the 5200 which was his reward in the Sixties.

In a high scoring contest - there was no clear round on this occasion from the 34 runners - the Brazilian prevailed with four faults, while Ledingham and Kilbaha were kept pinned back in equal second place with five others who all chalked up eight faults over the marathon 16-fence track.

Pessoa, who has lived in Belgium since 1981, suffered a heart attack last November but recovered in time to coach the Brazilian team, which included his son Rodgrigo, to the bronze medal position at the Atlanta Olympics. "My doctor said if I survived the excitement of that, I'd be good for another 10 years at least," he joked. However the Brazilian now wears a device which measures his heart rate, and was seen to check it as soon as he had completed his winning round.

The oldest rider ever to capture the Hickstead Derby, Pessoa's winning horse, the Irish-bred Loro Piana Vivaldi, was also amongst the oldest in the field at 19 years of age. But neither horse nor rider showed any signs of weakness over the 26 jumping efforts required to complete yesterday's gruelling test. "The horse was beautiful today, it was a privilege to ride him," he said.

The gelding, which had only competed on three other occasions this year and is only lightly campaigned due to a combination of his advancing years and problems with his feet, was amongst the many horses to have trouble at the three-part Devil's Dyke, bringing down the first element. But with no further problems, they assumed the lead at the midway point in the class, after a series of disastrous rounds which saw a third of the first half of the field fail to finish.

Ireland's Captain John Ledingham and Kilbaha were clear over the difficult parts of the course, with the chestnut gelding in sparkling form. But a momentary aberration brought the rails after the water crashing down, and hopes of forcing a jump-off with Pessoa faded when the chestnut also lowered the oxer two fences later. He joined the group of six riders on eight faults who earned 510,500 for equal second place.

Ledingham's colleague, Captain Gerry Mull ins, had an eventful afternoon, sustaining a crashing fall from his first ride, Killone Abbey, when badly misjudging the water jump. His second ride, Millstreet Ruby, had a refusal at the Derby rails and also lowered two poles to finish equal ninth.

The other main focus of Irish attention at Hickstead yesterday was on IJM Touchdown. the stallion which Britain's Michael Whitaker is now riding for the injured James Kernan. However Touchdown's Derby career is now in doubt following his resolute refusal to descend the 10ft 6ins drop off the Derby bank, which resulted in their elimination.

Whitaker had a better result however with his other borrowed ride, Gammon, the gelding which when ridden by his elder brother John last year had been beaten into second place by Ledingham. Showing the rest of the field the way through the Devil's Dyke - they were the first of only five combinations to successfully negotiate all three parts - they finished on eight faults and joined the runner-up group.

Ledingham was also forced on Saturday to hand over his Silk Cut Speed Derby crown, having won it for the previous three years with Castlepollard. On this occasion the 13-year-old First Consul gelding was too keen and hot. a problem his rider attributed to his three-day eventing experience earlier this year, when he switched disciplines in an unsuccessful bid to secure Olympic qualification.

Ledingham's attempt to score a record breaking fourth success came undone when Castlepollard jumped too strongly off the bank and was unable to clear the fence which followed. I think it was my fault, I kicked him off it," Ledingham admitted afterwards. But for this mistake and the five second penalty it carried, Ledingham's finishing time of 98.07, whilst a long way outside his previous three winning times, would have been fast enough to beat eventual winner Michel Robert of France (Alligator Fontaine).