Doing it for Ella

Hickstead's press officer Victoria Goff caught up with Matthew Sampson, the winner of the Bunn Leisure Speed Derby 


Amid all the elation of Matthew Sampson’s win in last year’s British Speed Derby, there was a tinge of sadness. Following his lap of honour, a breathless Matt immediately dedicated his win to Ella Popely, a talented young showjumper who had died in a road accident six months earlier at the age of just 18. “She was like my little sister,” says Matt, who had spent two years living with Ella, her brother Jack and their mum Lea Popely when he was a teenager. “Ella always used to say to me, you’ve got to win the Speed Derby, and I’d say to her, well, hopefully one day I will. Before the class Lea told me I had to do it for Ella. It was a bit weird that the first year after it happened, I got the ride on that horse at the last minute, and that was the year I finally did it.”

Some things are just meant to be. Having not ridden Topflight True Carlo for several years, Matt was asked to take on the ride on the British-bred Warmblood gelding just one day before the class. The horse had been ridden in the Astore & Sons Speed Derby qualifier by Christy Kemp, but Matt was asked to step in for the Speed Derby itself. “Christy had done a good job with him, he was raring to go which made it easier for me,” he says.

Matt had finished third in the same class with the horse in 2014, behind winner Guy Williams and runner-up Harriet Nuttall. That time, it had been the white gate four from home that had caught Sampson out. “I knew I had to give that a little bit of respect this time round, but apart from that I just wanted to go as fast as I could,” explains Matt, who was drawn 11th out of 30 starters.

Having taken an absolute flier to the last oxer, Matt crossed the finish line in 92.73sec to take the lead. But two former winning combinations were still to come – Guy Williams, who was aiming for a third win on Casper De Muze, and reigning champion Harriet Nuttall with Silver Lift. But when Guy felt his horse tiring he had eased up to finish in 95.59sec, while Harriet knocked an early pole to give Matt some breathing space. Matt found himself outside the International Arena almost unable to watch, anxiously moving from spot to spot as he waited to find out whether he’d stayed on top of the leaderboard. Harriet ended up finishing the course nearly two seconds up on the clock, but that fence down had cost her the win. “It was definitely a nervous wait,” Matt recalls.

It was the first big international win 27-year-old Matt has had at Hickstead, a place he’s been coming to since he was little. His parents own a riding school and livery yard in Yorkshire, and he was put on a pony from a very early age. “My elder brother and sister didn’t ride, so I didn’t have any choice!” he says. His first pony was called Honey, and he did a “bit of everything” with her, including being a member of Grove & Rufford Pony Club and going hunting with the Rockwood Harriers. Matt began competing in British Showjumping from the age of eight, and made his Hickstead debut on 128cms ponies, but his first appearance in the International Arena didn’t quite go as planned. “The first time I jumped here, I fell off right by the open grandstand! The pony stopped, and I didn’t, so I had a long walk out of the arena with a bridle in my hand.”

Despite the inauspicious start to his Hickstead career, he would later go on to win the Winter 138cm Championships here on a pony called Strawberry Fair. “It was my first win at a big show, and that made me want to do it again,” he recalls. He became renowned as a prolific winner on ponies, then went on to be selected to ride at the European Championships twice as a junior (winning team gold in Prague in 2008) and twice as a Young Rider. He also won the individual bronze medal at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival in Sydney in 2009, and won the Young Showjumper of the Year class at Olympia the same year.

Matt had left school at the age of 16 and headed south to be based with Duncan Inglis, whom he describes as “a great trainer and good friend”. He stayed for four years, including the two where he lived with the Popelys. After a spell in Belgium, where he was based with top rider and trainer Henk Nooren, Matt returned to Sheffield at the age of 21 to set up his own yard.

Although his yard is based in the north, he still spends summers back at Lea Popely’s in West Sussex. “It’s a home from home for me. I’m competing most weekends, and it’s easier to get abroad from here,” he explains.

He has around 8-10 horses in his string, including Speed Derby winner Topflight True Carlo, who returned to Matt’s yard in April after wintering with his owner. ‘Boycott’, as he is known in the stable, has a unique background for a top showjumper. His owner, Christine Spanner, bought him when he was five as an all-rounder, and she has competed him in showjumping, eventing, hunting, and team chasing, which undoubtedly helps when it comes to tackling some of the Speed Derby’s unusual fences. Even now that showjumping is Boycott’s main job, Christine hacks him out most days in the country park next to her house, and he lives out at grass 24/7. “He’s a lovely horse, he’s not sharp, but he’s always lived out and it works for him,” says Matt.

The pair’s Speed Derby win was not just a dream come true for the rider, it meant a lot to the horse’s owner too. “I’ve watched this class since I was a young child – I can’t thank Matt enough for what he’s done,” said Christine, after watching their win last summer.

This year Matt is aiming to defend his win in the British Speed Derby, and he is one of the leading contenders for this year’s Al Shira’aa Derby as well, having won the Hamburg Derby on David McPherson’s mare Gloria van Zuuthoeve last month. It was a masterly bit of riding to jump clear on the obviously keen mare, and he was the only rider in the jump-off who produced a double clear to win.

Now with major wins at Hickstead and Hamburg under his belt, he’d love to make it to the CSIO5* here in July, and he has his sights on eventual team selection. “My main ambition is to build up a team of horses to do five-star shows, so that’s what I’m working on now, and obviously Senior championships and Olympics are everybody’s biggest dream,” he says.

Aside from his Derby successes, Matt has hit the headlines for winning the Foxhunter Final at HOYS in 2017, and for his singing talent. Keen to get into the four-star show at Bolesworth last year, he filmed himself singing several songs of his own composition, serenading organiser Nina Barbour, and they were uploaded to social media. His plan worked – he got into the show, and his videos got viewed nearly 300,000 times.

No such singing will be required as he returns to Hickstead this week – though he’s got a lovely voice (check out our Facebook page to see him and his friend Joe Whitaker perform a special version of ‘King of the Road’ if you want proof). The Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting is a show he loves coming to. “The atmosphere is so special, and I love all the build up to the big classes. There are always several favourites in the Speed Derby and the Derby, it’s never clear who’s going to win. Anything can happen on the day. Me and my friends have been coming here since we were on ponies and we would wait all week to watch the Speed Derby, so for one of us to do well in it last year was a great day, really special,” he says.

He loves jumping on grass too, and thinks you don’t get better going anywhere than in Hickstead’s main ring. “When you canter into the International Arena, it never gets old. Whether it’s a big class or not, you still get that same feeling, you want to do well simply because it’s Hickstead.”

But ask him if he thinks he can win twice in a row, and he remains pragmatic. “I’m going to try, anyway!” he says, with a smile – he rarely stops smiling, if truth be told. The guy who loves spending time with his family but equally adores life on the competition circuit; the unassuming northerner with the brilliant singing voice; the determined speed king who is quietly working away to get to the next step in his sport. Here’s a talented young rider with his mind on the big time but his feet firmly on the ground. Ella would be proud.


This article first appeared in June 2018


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