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January 23, 2009

2008 Winter Circuit Champions: Bruce Duchossois Keeps A Deep Bench At WEF

Photo by Kat Netzler

As a circuit championship winner and a dedicated owner in multiple disciplines, this adult amateur’s life has always been all about horses.

Bruce Duchossois’ busy lifestyle requires perfect scheduling, and he’s planned the past two years out carefully. The 59-year-old amateur from Aiken, S.C., sandwiched his circuit championship at the 2008 Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., between two hip replacement surgeries.

“After the first one last year, I told the doctor that I was going to ride through the circuit,” Duchossois said. “He’s not a horse person, so he doesn’t like the idea that I ride at all. But being in the saddle was comfortable.”

Duchossois was “comfortable” enough to compete multiple horses in the adult amateur division at WEF last year, topping the 51 and over section. He also earned the Golden Horse Jewelry Adult Amateur Challenge as the rider with the most points in all three age divisions.

While he recovered from surgeries in the summer months of 2007 and 2008, Duchossois gave his horses a vacation from the show ring as well. He credited trainer Havens Schatt for helping them all get back in form for WEF and for sending him to the top of the division with Regall, a 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood.

Duchossois bought the gelding through Bill Moroney several years ago. Paige Johnson’s former mount in the amateur-owner division, Regall was in good company when Duchossois added the gelding to his pre-existing string of stars. He has a deep bench of trusty and talented older horses to keep him busy.

His 18-year-old veteran Rheinlander gelding, Dialog L, earned countless championships with Johnson, Scott Stewart and Georgina Bloomberg in his heyday. Que Sera, a 17-year-old chestnut Hanoverian, has been with Duchossois the longest; their partnership is in its seventh year. And the French-bred Dutton, named after Olympic eventer Phillip Dutton, is a 15-year-old gray gelding. The “baby” of the group, Dutton previously competed in the jumper ring with Laura Kraut.

“I know a parent isn’t supposed to say this, but he’s my favorite,” Duchossois said. “He has such a work ethic. He’s just a real hard scrapper and gives you 100 percent every time, and I think Phillip is the same way.”

Reigning champion Regall, a bright chestnut gelding, was imported as a jumper stallion but eventually found his calling in the hunter ring. He still retains the vim and vigor of his youth, though.

“He’s a handful, and he lets you know it,” Duchossois said. “He’s full of himself. But he’s such a beautiful jumper and mover. He’s very seldom out of the top three in the hack class.”

Last month, Regall took a bad step while schooling, so he may miss out on some of the winter season, but Duchossois said the injury isn’t career-ending.

Plenty of downtime is Duchossois’ simple secret to keeping his older horses fresh and healthy. At WEF he’ll rotate his three mounts every week so they each get every third show off. And at home in Aiken, he rarely schools them, instead utilizing the 40 acres of timberland adjacent to his farm for hacking.

“In between shows, all they do is trail ride,” Duchossois said. “We jump maybe three or four jumps the day before horse show day, and that’s more for me than for them. They know their jobs.”

But Duchossois will also be adding one young horse to his line-up this winter as well. Schatt will ride his 6-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Gotcha, in the pre-green division, while he plans to campaign him in the adult amateurs.

Five hunters would be enough to keep almost anyone occupied, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg for Duchossois, who has a long history of equine involvement across many disciplines.

Duchossois’ mother rode saddle horses as a girl, and his father owned Arlington Park racetrack near Chicago, Ill., and is still affiliated with its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc. But Duchossois credited his sixth-grade girlfriend with initiating his interest in horses.

“I went out riding with her a few times and really enjoyed it,” he recalled. “My parents really kind of bribed me and said if I kept my grades up, I could get a horse.”

Devoid of any real experience, the young enthusiast scoured the Chicago Tribune’s classifieds until he eventually found what he thought was the perfect horse—a retired five-gaited mare.

“I was [boarding] at a hunter/jumper barn, and here I was on a horse with a set tail, thrashing around the ring while they were all on Thoroughbreds,” he said, laughing. “I quickly learned that I was out of my league.”

But Duchossois progressed nonetheless, doing “all the stuff kids do.” He changed horses, barns and instructors, started fox hunting and showed all throughout his school years.

As his father grew to prominence in the racing industry, Duchossois gained experience with Thoroughbreds. For his 21st birthday, he got a yearling filly at the Hialeah Yearling Sale (Fla.) named Kim’s Song, who went on to flop on the racetrack but shine in the show ring. She gave Duchossois his first taste of national success, winning AHSA Horse of the Year honors and championships at the National Horse Show (N.Y.), the Pennsylvania National and the Washington International (D.C.).

Duchossois’ first appearance on the winter circuit in Florida came in 1974. Over the next few decades he moved to Aiken, added more racing experience to his résumé, began competing at the advanced level in combined driving with a single pony and bought the first of many event horses he’s owned for Phillip Dutton.

“The Australian Federation rented my father’s barn in Aiken before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, so that’s how I met Phillip, since he was still riding for Australia back then,” Duchossois said. “He found a horse that was really reasonably priced, won more than I paid for him in his first year competing, and then we turned around and sold him for twice as much. That’s when we got Hannigan.”

Hannigan became one of Dutton’s most successful four-star mounts, and Duchossois’ partnership with Dutton has remained strong since then. He now owns Dutton’s 2008 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** winner and Olympic mount, Connaught, and an up-and-coming young homebred, Wild Tiger.

Duchossois said he looks forward to returning to driving when he feels finished competing in the saddle, but that won’t be any time soon. With two new hips and plenty of horses, he’ll be back at WEF again this year and for many more to come. 

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