In one split second, Phillip Dutton held the left rein tight, shifted his body weight and glanced down to see if his mid-air reaction had pushed Mighty Nice inside the red flag.
Approaching the sixth fence of a grueling cross-country course at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, “Happy,” on his last stride, caught sight of the back of a corner brush jump and, momentarily confused, drifted hard to the right.
Demonstrating sheer will, athleticism and reflexes honed by jump after jump, year after year, Dutton’s gutsy, determined effort worked. The save, along with Happy’s personal best four-star dressage score and only one rail down in show jumping, resulted in Dutton climbing the podium to receive his first individual Olympic medal.
After decades of hard work, to receive the individual bronze aboard this particular horse was all the more satisfying.
The horse had been owned by Dutton’s dear friend and longtime supporter Bruce Duchossois, who passed away from cancer in 2014. Happy, now a 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse, was willed to Dutton, who brought in five of Duchossois’ closest friends under the partnership HND Group (named for Duchossois’ farm Hill N Dale), and they competed the horse in his honor.
Dutton’s distinguished career has been colored by the same perseverance, grit and tenacity made visible over that fence in Rio. The professional choices he’s made—from leaving his family farm in rural Australia and moving to the United States, to eventually becoming an American citizen—have been fueled by intuition and long-range goals.
He’s ridden in six Olympic Games and earned two team gold medals for Australia, but receiving his individual medal in Rio on behalf of his adopted country at this stage of his career (he was the oldest Olympic athlete on team USA in any sport) and with this horse is nothing short of inspiring.
And Dutton, 53, is not finished.
What Sport Is About
On a mild mid-December day, Dutton was working a horse in the indoor ring of his True Prospect Farm, an hour or so west of Philadelphia. His focus on the horse was so absolute he didn’t notice me, a few minutes early to our interview, standing at the gate. He dismounted, and I slowly came onto his radar.
“Ah Jennifer, is it?” he asked softly, his Australian accent detectable in just those four words. He extended his hand and gave me a shy smile.
He took me on a quick tour of the barn, outlying rings, gallop track and cross-country course. He walked no-nonsense fast, as he gestured toward the various features of his stunning farm, and I lengthened my stride to keep up.
Although he later told me being named The Chronicle of the Horse’s Overall Horseman of the Year is an “incredible honor”—I believe he’s sincere, as he immediately knew he had been our Eventing Horseman of the Year before but never overall, and on a shelf in the study of his house, a framed Chronicle cover was nestled among medals and family snapshots—I got the feeling he prefers doing his job rather than talking about his achievements.
We settled into his office overlooking the indoor. As we chatted, Dutton was engaged but would often watch the horses and riders schooling through the window behind me, absentmindedly rubbing his hands together as he considered his answers to my questions.
Going into these Games—and during them—Dutton didn’t think he had much of a shot at an individual medal and was focused on a successful team showing. Sure everyone says that, but in Dutton’s case you believe him.
He’s knocked on the door his entire career, always being among the top eventers in the world, always being a consistent team anchor, but an individual Olympic medal had proven elusive.
Happy also has been near the top many times. He finished fourth in 2016 at Rolex Kentucky, ahead of stablemate Fernhill Cubalawn, who was selected to be Dutton’s mount in Rio. When a last-minute injury knocked “Cuba” out, Happy was called up.
“Happy really fought hard,” Dutton said. “That is kind of what sport is about—certainly you have to have talent, but a lot of it is tenacity, your belief and not giving up, and that kind of is what that event was about. It was a fight right through to the finish.”
He could just as easily be talking about himself.
Was It A Dream?
The week before our interview, Dutton was in Australia visiting his 87-year-old mother who has been struggling with health issues. Unlike other trips home, this last-minute one was made without Evie, his wife of 19 years, and their family (15-year-old twin daughters, Olivia and Mary, and 22-year-old Lee Lee Jones, Phillip’s stepdaughter).
“I went back to where I grew up and drove around on my own. Going back with Evie and the kids is a little bit different because you are talking, whereas this time I was driving for hours and hours in the car alone,” he said. “I was getting these flashbacks of living there, and I’m thinking, ‘How the hell did I end up where I am? Maybe it was a dream that I was in America,’ you know?”
This is an excerpt from the article “Phillip Dutton And Mighty Nice: Overall And Eventing Horseman And Horse Of The Year” by Jennifer B. Calder, which appears in the Feb. 6 & 13 American Horses In Sport issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read the article in its entirety, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.
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