Exclusive interview with 'CP International', presented by Rolex winner and Rolex Grand Slam contender Sameh El Dahan
How did it feel to win your first Rolex Major?
It was the most fantastic feeling, I have been working towards this my whole life, since I was a little kid. This Grand Prix (CP ‘International’ presented by Rolex) is one of the biggest on the circuit and it’s one that all riders want to win. To have my name on the board alongside the world’s most legendary riders like Eric Lamaze, Nick Skelton and the Whitakers is just a dream come true.
What were your expectations heading to the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’?
This is a funny story. We had actually decided we were not going to compete at Spruce Meadows this year as we wanted to focus on the World Equestrian Games™ (WEG) in Tryon, USA. One morning, about two months before Spruce, Zorro’s owner, Joanne Sloan Allen, said to me over some coffee: “I woke up this morning with this strange feeling that you need to compete at Spruce and that you are going to win…”.
My first reaction was that it would be very difficult logistically to make this happen and that it wouldn’t be possible. However, Joanne was adamant that Zorro and I were going to win in Spruce and that she would support me all the way, so of course I couldn’t say no!
I am always positive and hope that I will get a good result when competing, but it did feel a little far fetched at the time that we would win one of the biggest Rolex Majors, but I thought to myself we will go and we will give it our best shot. My horse is incredible, my support team is amazing, so I knew that if everything went perfectly on the day I would be in with a chance and luckily for us everything went according to plan.
I always feel that everything happens for a reason, and for whatever reason Joanne had this strange feeling, she was quite right!
What has life been like since your Major win at the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’?
It has been busy! I am so grateful for all the support I have received. People from all over the world have messaged me to say congratulations. The response from people in Egypt was overwhelming, I have also had friends from various different countries sending me magazines because I have been on the front page! My phone just didn’t stop buzzing! It’s been such a rollercoaster and we have loved it.
It’s funny because we have always been underdogs, but simply winning one Major has propelled us into the spotlight and now when people see my name they are expecting me to do well, so there is a little bit more pressure, but I love it.
Take us back to the start; how did you get into equestrian sport?
I was five-years-old when my parents took me to our cousin’s farm and I started riding. My brother is four years older than me and he was the keen rider, much more than me. He used to wake me up at 05.00am before school and drag me down to the stables and at that point I never dreamed that it would be my career. I actually studied medicine at University, my family are all doctors, so it seemed the right path for me at the time. By the third year I knew that I wanted to pursue my career in equestrian sport. I was so lucky to have lots of owners giving me horses to ride and when I had 10 horses in my stables I realised that I could really make something of myself. I never give up on anything, so despite knowing I would not become a doctor, I finished my degree and qualified. I don’t have any plans to return to medicine, because horses are my life now and I couldn’t be happier with that decision.
Suma’s Zorro is an amazing horse, how did this partnership come about?
I used to work with Cian O’Connor and I had planned to start again with him in 2011 for the beginning of the Sunshine Tour. However, Joanne rang Cian as her rider broke his arm and she needed someone to compete her horses. He suggested me, and that’s where our wonderful partnership began.
Joanne was coming back from a broken leg, so I rode all the horses for the first five weeks. When she came back I just rode the young ones and Joanne road the older ones and that was when I started riding Zorro. I started competing her and we just gelled really well. Joanne could see that our partnership was forming, and she allowed me to keep competing the mare. I am so lucky to have Joanne, from day one she has been in my corner and is my rock. I really believe everything happens for a reason and without Zorro and the opportunity that Joanne gave me, I wouldn’t be here today.
What is Zorro like at home? Does she have any funny characteristics?
Zorro is the most laid-back horse until she sees a vet with a needle or the clippers! She hates them. She also doesn’t really like noise that much, if there is lots going on in the yard and it’s loud, she stands facing the corner of her stable looking grumpy with her ears back! She loves food and enjoys being in the field. She also really likes treats and if she can hear Joanne, me or her groom, she will always pop her head out of the stable and give you an expectant face.
Ireland is very different to Egypt, did it take a while to adapt to your new home?
To be honest, it didn’t really take me very long to adapt. I did a lot of travelling with my family throughout my childhood, so I am very used to different places and cultures. The only thing I struggled with was the rain! We don’t have very much rain in the Egypt, and the first week at my new home it rained every day. At first, I quite enjoyed experiencing a bit of rain; however, I grew tired of it quite quickly! Jokes aside, Joanne made the transition so easy, she is so welcoming and I have a great network of people around me. I like company and don’t like to be alone, so it feels amazing to have so many people that support me and love me. I am so lucky to have incredible sponsors and owners in Dr. Joe and Pat Sloan, without their continuous backing, through their company WKD, none of this would be possible I just can’t explain how grateful I am.
What’s Sycamore Stables like?
There are three farms at Sycamore Stables; the main yard has 18 stables, housing the competition horses which are five-years-old and above. Then there are two further farms that are home to the brood mares and yearlings. All three farms have amazing facilities and lots of grazing fields for the horses. It is quite a big operation, which Joanne and I manage, but we are growing and have recently hired a new team member to manage the young horses.
Are there any more horses based at Sycamore Stables that you think could win a Rolex Major?
I believe in all my horses, but I currently have three eight-year-old mares that I think are going to make incredible 5* horses. They are all completely different and have a variety of styles and techniques, and I am really looking forward to the future with them. There is also a six-year-old that I am so excited about, but I am keeping her under the radar, as she is still so young.
Do you work with any grass roots programmes in Egypt, to help encourage young riders?
I have been involved with an academy in Egypt previously, but due to my busy work schedule that has since died out. I am currently in touch with some of my friends at home and we are in talks to set up a stable in Egypt that will focus on supporting young up-and-coming riders. I am working with Joanne on this, too; our goal is to create the same thing in Europe so that Egyptian riders have a base here over the summer and a support network.
What are your expectations for the CHI Geneva? Are you hoping to continue the Rolex Grand Slam journey?
I have a fantastic horse, so if we do everything right and all goes to plan on the day, I think we have a very good chance in Geneva. Zorro is currently enjoying a holiday, but we have made a plan to make sure she is in top form for the CHI Geneva. She has two 5* shows before Geneva, as interestingly she always performs better at her third show, so hopefully that works. I will be making sure I am on top of my game, too.
What’s the best piece advice you have been given?
Be humble, stay on your feet.
Regardless of the result at the CHI Geneva, are you planning to compete at the other two Majors: The Dutch Masters and the CHIO Aachen?
For sure, I plan to go to both of these shows. It is a dream come true for any rider to compete in the ring at Aachen, the atmosphere and facilities are the best in the world and I would really love riding there. I haven’t competed at The Dutch Masters for a while, but I heard really positive things from people who competed there last year, so I am excited to be a part of it.