June 20, 2014 — Now it’s official. Phillip Dutton has been selected to ride in every Olympic and World Equestrian Games for the past 20 years.
Yesterday, his name was on the list of U.S. competitors chosen for the Land Rover Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games squad, along with his buddy, Boyd Martin (Shamwari 4); Buck Davidson (Ballynoe Castle RM), Sinead Halpin (Manoir de Carneville), Kim Severson (Fernhill Fearless) and Lynn Symansky (Donner).
Phillip started out at the 1994 WEG in the Netherlands with the contingent from his native Australia, the country for which he helped win two Olympic gold medals, and went on to represent the U.S. at the Olympics and the WEG after becoming a citizen.
But it has been no certainty over the last eight weeks that his streak would stretch to Normandy in August. Things started out well enough at the Rolex Kentucky 4-star selection trial in April, where his smile said it all after dressage.
Phillip usually is not one to show emotion on a grand scale, but when Mr. Medicott finished a very credible dressage test at the Kentucky Horse Park, the rider offered his version of a pleased-as-punch grin and waved at the crowd more enthusiastically than usual.
A double-clear on cross-country followed and it appeared all it would take was a decent show jumping round to clinch a fond hope of U.S. supporters — that Phillip would be headed for the WEG aboard a stellar animal who was a two-time Olympic starter.
But it fell apart in less than 24 hours.
Mr. Medicott was not presented at the final horse inspection. Something went wrong, and when Rolex Kentucky 2014 was history, it emerged that the 15-year-old Irishbred son of Cruising had aggravated an old tendon injury.
Phillip nursed a bit of hope that Mr. Medicott could be back for the WEG. But the odds were against it and soon the news came that Mr. Medicott had been withdrawn from WEG consideration.
That was a blow all around.
“He is such a fabulous horse, one of the best horses in the world. Phillip just loves the horse. It was a shame it wasn’t going to happen,” said U.S. Coach David O’Connor, whose wife, Karen, rode Mr. Medicott to the top American eventing placing in the 2012 Olympics.
When Karen had a 2013 accident that ended her eventing career, the horse went to a syndicate composed of such heavy hitters as Bruce Duchossois and Annie Jones, longtime supporters of Phillip’s; Jacqueline Mars, Tom Tierney, Stephanie Speakman, Suzanne Lacey, Bridget Coleman, Caroline Moran, Sarah Kelley and Jerome Broussard.
The pairing with Phillip seemed like a dream combination.
David cited the veteran’s experience and the fact that he had no jumping penalties cross-country in five Olympics, making him an “unbelievably valuable asset.” Added David, “I don’t know of any other rider in the world that has that kind of a record.”
And he keeps on adding to it. Even at age 50, Phillip is not necessarily closing in on the end of a storied career.
“He still has that desire, he still has that technique,” David observed.
Although Phillip applied in conjunction with Bobby Costello for the job that eventually went to David (Phillip would have handled the technical aspects, while Bobby would have been the chef d’equipe), he’s just as happy now that he didn’t get it.
“It was one of those things where the job comes up, and they don’t come up that often,” said Phillip, explaining why he went for it.
“As it turned out, I think it was for the best it didn’t pan out,” he said.
As he looks at the future, he noted, “I’ve got a lot to offer but I still can ride for a while yet, too. I enjoy the sport immensely.
“In my mind, it is the best all-around horsemanship sport. It has developed now with horses and riders needing incredible skills; to win you have to be pretty talented in all three phases,” he observed.
But Phillip also pointed out, “You can still get a good all-around horse and make it a really good horse, whereas in some of the other disciplines, God needs to give those horses pretty much a gift to have them at the highest level.”
One of Phillip’s secrets to success involves “surrounding yourself with the right people and people who are loyal to you. The owners go through so much. For eventing, it has to be someone who really loves it, enjoys every day; not just when it goes right.
“If there is an accident, sometimes it can be bad. The hardest part for me is when the horses get hurt.”
While Phillip was a lock to make the U.S. team if Mr. Medicott had stayed sound, his WEG participation became much more problematic after that horse was no longer a contender. He hoped for a good performance from Mighty Nice at the Luhmuhlen, Germany, 4-star that might give him a boost onto the team, and a seventh-place finish there boosted his credentials. He and Mighty Nice were named as alternates.
But what put him on the squad was one of Boyd’s horses, Trading Aces, since he had qualified with that Irishbred gelding, finishing eighth with him at Rolex after Boyd was sidelined with a broken leg.
The possibility he might be able to ride Trading Aces wasn’t something anyone was commenting on until it was determined what horse would be ridden by a recuperated Boyd. His third-place finish at Luhmuhlen on Shamwari 4 (who Phillip also had competed earlier in the season) got Boyd his slot, and the owners of Trading Aces agreed that Phillip could ride him at the WEG.
Asked about Phillip competing on his horses while he was out of commission, Boyd said, “Phillip’s arguably the best cross-country rider in the world. The most important thing, when you try to get someone else to ride and compete (your horse) for you, is that they don’t ruin or change their confidence or style of riding cross-country. It’s been brilliant for him to ride my three top horses.”
There is quite a bond between Phillip and Boyd, also a native of Australia who had dual U.S. citizenship. Boyd stayed with Phillip when he first came to America, and then went on to work for him at True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa. They have remained close during triumphs and tragedy.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” said Phillip, in a masterpiece of understatement. That includes the death of Boyd’s father and his father-in-law, the death of Phillip’s father and the serious injury earlier this year suffered by Boyd’s wife, Silva. And then there was the fire.
In 2011, a barn at True Prospect, where Boyd was keeping his horses before moving them to his new farm, went up in flames. Several horses were rescued, but still inside when Boyd got there was his star, Neville Bardos.
Phillip and Boyd ignored the orders of firefighters to stay away, running inside to rescue the horse.
“You feel pretty helpless sitting outside a barn and there’s nothing there but dark and smoke. It was just something I felt was worth trying,” said Phillip, explaining why he risked death with his friend.
“It’s not something you think about too much, you just do it.”
He added, “the firemen’s job is to save people’s live, it’s not their job to save animals. Boyd and I were on a completely different page. That’s why we disobeyed them.”
Neville was in serious condition, but he recovered and miraculously went on to finish seventh at Burghley a little more than three months later.
The USA’s leading rider 13 times between 1998 and 2012, Phillip’s credits also include topping the world rankings and twice being president of the PRO U.S. eventers group.
While Phillip has had the ride on several well-known horses, most notably Mystery Whisper (2012 Olympics) as well as Mr. Medicott, he’s got a special bond with the horses he develops himself.
“He’s made so many horses,” said loyal supporter Annie Jones. One of her many memorable moments with Phillip came when he was second at Burghley on The Foreman.
Talking about how he trains his horses, she said, “I think he’s so good at making them. That’s where we had our best luck. The trust he elicits from his horses is so phenomenal.”
Phillip agrees that there is an advantage to making your own eventer.
“The horse gets to know you and what you do. Coming to the jump, if things are a bit wrong, the horse knows what I expect and I get to know what the horse is going to do. With Annie, we’ve had incredible success or luck. She was the first person to help me.”
The first horse Annie owned for him was True Blue Girdwood, the Australian thoroughbred he brought with him from his homeland and the one who started his career.
“She very much loves the thoroughbred. It would be great to have another great thoroughbred with her,” he commented.
Phillip grew up riding on a cattle farm. Horses were in the family; his grandfather had racehorses.
“He bred them and used to go to some of the country tracks. Breaking them was part of what I did,” recalled Phillip.
Spending time in the saddle for as long as he could remember, he was involved in rounding up sheep and cattle. Living in an isolated area, the Duttons had to be self-sufficient with their horses. Phillip’s father shod his own, and when he turned 14, so did Phillip. He also learned veterinary care, what to do if a horse was sick or colicked, when a veterinarian wasn’t around the corner.
He went through Pony Club and started to compete at recognized horse trials, enjoying “the idea of everything that went into it, gaining a horse’s confidence and getting him fit.”
When things weren’t going well financially on the farm, he decided to come to America for a year. That was 1991; he’s still here.
Things weren’t easy for him in the U.S. at first, though he had many people help him, from Bruce Davidson to Densey and Ron Juvonen, for whom he worked.
He ruefully remembers his first competition in the U.S., the 2-star at the old Essex Horse Trials in Gladstone, N.J., aboard True Blue Girdwood, who was “way too green. I had two falls on cross-country and I didn’t complete. I was thinking about going back to Australia after that,” he confided with a chuckle.
Eventually, though, he got “the feeling I could make my way here in this country. Australia is a much newer country, and less wealthy. The potential for having people get a horse for you is more limited.
“Having someone else own the horse, you’re not tempted to sell the horse,” he pointed out.
And he still likes the thoroughbreds, though he noted, “they’ve got to be the right horse for today’s sport. They’ve got to have the mind and be able to move and be careful on the last day (for show jumping).
“The breed itself has changed quite a bit. It’s much more speed-oriented in the breeding now, so it’s a bit harder to find that big, rangy, loose-moving horse. If you do get one, you can be pretty confident when you get to a 4-star they’re going to be able to gallop within the 12 minutes.”
He has absorbed knowledge over the years from many people, a long list that includes George Morris, Linda Zang, Mark Phillips, David O’Connor, Katie and Henri Prudent, Robert Dover, Bruce Davidson and others, but it was Wayne Roycroft “who was most instrumental in my career in getting me riding correctly,” he said.
Roycroft was coach of the Australian team and spent a month with Phillip before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which was the first time he was named to an Olympic team.
“His belief in me was a turning point and gave me the confidence that someone of his stature would help me and let me know I could do it. When someone as respected as he was said that, I started to believe it myself,” recalled Phillip.
Another key player in his life is Evie, his wife of 15 years and “the rock of the family.” The couple has three children; his stepdaughter, Lee Lee Jones, who is in college and an avid rider, while the Duttons’ 12-year-old twins are divided in terms of their equine inclination. Olivia is competing at novice level, while Mary isn’t interested in horses, preferring music, dance and acting.
Of Evie’s support, Phillip noted, “When you go in that start box, you’re putting your neck on the line a little bit and you’re on your own with your horse. Just before you go in, you can’t have a little bit of doubt. It’s good to have somebody behind you, whether it’s win lose or draw, they’ll support you.”
He added his wife “has been a great influence. It’s not just about the riding. There are decisions you have to make and calls you have to make along the way. We’re partners in all of that.”
She also rides the younger horses, runs the office and “pays all the bills. She makes sure we’re in the black every month, or trying to be,” her husband said.
Loyalty is a keynote of Phillip’s life. He’s loyal to his horses, sponsors and students, and they return the favor.
Bruce Duchossois met Phillip when the Australian team stayed at his Aiken, S.C., farm before the Atlanta Olympics and he was impressed by the members’ work ethic and sporting nature. He got to know Phillip, who wondered if he wanted to invest in a horse.
“He’s an honest guy. You sit down with him for 10 minutes and feel like you knew him forever. Horses perform for Phillip like they don’t perform for other people,” said Bruce.
He wasn’t eventing-oriented, “I didn’t know Rolex from Timex,” Bruce confided with a smile. After all, he was focused on riding hunters. But Bruce trusted Phillip and became a partner in several horses.
In 2008, one of them, Connaught, won Rolex Kentucky, ending his “bridemaid’s streak at the event. It was an emotional moment for Phillip as well as Bruce.
“To win it for that man was really rewarding, because he’d been so good to me,” said Phillip.
Jennie Branigan, who learned the ropes of eventing from Phillip before going out on her own, sums him up this way:
“He’s an incredibly mentally tough person, but I also think he’s a really kind person who’s quiet. He’s incredibly supportive and knows when to show up. When you really need him, he is really there for you. He’s a person who lets his actions speak for themselves.”