Dutton’s first four-star win rewards a long partnership.
For so many years, Connaught took a back seat to the limelight of Olympic gold medalists and three-star winners in Phillip Dutton’s stable.
But almost nine years after arriving at True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa., Connaught achieved something that Dutton hasn’t claimed with any of his many talented mounts—a victory at the four-star level. When Bruce Duchossois’ Irish Sport Horse topped the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** by almost 6 points, he confirmed his spot as one of the world’s best horses in front of a record crowd of 103,521.
His clean show jumping round—one of just two all day—edged him ahead of Becky Holder and Courageous Comet, who’d led the event in Lexington, Ky., April 24-27, from the start.
The win added to an illustrious past few years for the phenomenal jumper, who finished second at Rolex Kentucky last year, after representing Australia at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. Dutton now rides for the United States, and Connaught will be a candidate for the Olympic Games, although Dutton has three other prospects in The Foreman, Truluck and Woodburn (who finished 10th at Kentucky).
But not every rider would have gotten Connaught to this victory. “He’s taken a while in all areas,” said Dutton with his typical understatement. “He was hard for me. And because he goes so high over his fences, [cross-country] was hard on him. He gets tired.”
In 2004, Connaught fell at Kentucky at the Sunken Road. “He jumped into the bounce, put a stride in and stepped back [off the bank],” Dutton said. “It was a horrific fall.”
Dutton, undeterred, built a sunken road at home. “It was the up and down part he was having trouble with,” Dutton said.
When Connaught returned to Kentucky in 2006, his first trip back since that fall, Dutton said he was quite nervous about the Sunken Road.
“I was a fraction lucky that year [at Kentucky], although he jumped a hard one [at the 2006 WEG] well,” Dutton said. That year, “Simon” finished fourth at Kentucky, and he returned in 2007 to take second.
Because of Simon’s huge, lofty jump, he puts more wear and tear on himself, and, as a result, Dutton said he doesn’t do a lot of big courses with him every year. “I might take him intermediate. Last year before Kentucky I did one course, and this year I did two,” he said. “He does try so hard.”
Dutton said that Simon’s successes have also come from some management changes. “It’s always been hard to keep weight on him,” said Dutton of the 15-year-old gelding (Ballysimon—Bromehill Rogue). “He’s naturally very lean, and sometimes he’s been too skinny. He likes his alfalfa hay, and it’s good for his stomach. We also keep him out as much as we can on grass.”
Simon doesn’t travel well, and Dutton has started shipping him loose in a box stall to make him happier.
“A lot goes into the care of Connaught,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s very rewarding because he has not been an easy horse,” he added. “He’s super talented, but a lot of people have put a lot of effort in, and Bruce has been very patient. Persistence is the key. We’ve stuck with him and had faith in him.”
Better To Win
Dutton said the five times he’s finished as runner-up at Kentucky haven’t bothered him at all. “It feels a lot better to win, but I haven’t been too worried that I haven’t won,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to be second several times, although there was one year with True Blue Girdwood when I had one rail and could have won.”
In the past, he said, he was always trying to catch up with the dressage leaders, and this year he thinks the improvement in Connaught’s dressage, which had them standing in third place going into cross-country, gave them a better chance. He attributed some of the improvement in his score to a comment his wife, Evie, made as he was warming up for dressage.
“She said, ‘You’re pushing too much. Don’t try so hard.’ I slowed it down, and he goes in the ring, and the energy goes up a notch anyway. So I rode quiet and relaxed, and when we went into the ring, that added a bit to it,” he noted.
That comment proved to be a worthwhile bit of insight from Evie’s point of view, since Dutton said he will be giving her the Rolex watch he won. “I’m rough on my watches—I’m always banging them up,” he said. “It will look much better on her.”
Duchossois usually can’t watch Dutton on his mounts at Rolex Kentucky, since the date interferes with a horse show he helps run in his hometown of Aiken, S.C., but this year he wasn’t affiliated with the show and traveled to Lexington.
“It’s probably the highlight of my horse career—in racing, riding, eventing or anything,” said Duchossois of his win. “It was the thrill of a lifetime.”
A New Program
Like Dutton, Holder knew she had a tremendously talented horse, but getting to a top four-star placing with the 12-year-old Thoroughbred was a long road.
When Holder, Mendota Heights, Minn., suffered a crashing fall last October at the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) with Courageous Comet, she took a long, hard look at her weaknesses. She’d had a rough year, retiring early on course at Rolex Kentucky that spring, and she decided to re-commit to making things work with her horse of a lifetime.
He had, after all, nearly won Rolex Kentucky in 2006, but four rails in show jumping dropped her from the lead to 13th.
“I started all over again with the basics, and I also worked on myself and my fitness and my horse’s confidence,” she said. “I started a program to lead us to our best performance here at Kentucky.”
She examined every aspect of Comet’s program—feeding, turnout, flatwork and horsemanship. “I’ve always felt he was a world-class horse, and I have some confidence in my riding ability, but we’d just never been able to put it all together,” she said. “I needed to take a totally unbiased, honest and critical look at myself and my program. I wanted to change whatever I could change and control whatever I could control. It was a painful process, but it’s also been rewarding.”
She returned to the basics and concentrated on getting Comet (Comet Shine—Rosenelli) through and on the aids. “I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of USEF training sessions for the past eight years—dating back to my time with Highland Hogan—and it was time for me to get my act together and put all the information they’ve given me to work,” she said.
“I did gymnastics, trot poles, different striding in lines, all kinds of basic exercises. The common thread for me was figuring out how the horse uses his body, what affects him negatively and positively, and how his personality affects how he responds to all three phases,” she explained.
She found that when Comet tenses, he’s tight in his back. “He stiffens his posture, and that detracted from our performance in all three phases,” she said. “I used a lot of flatwork to figure out how to help him relax and use his body in a positive way.”
Although she’s always excelled in the dressage, this year Holder took the lead with a gorgeous test, on a score of 39.3.
“I also had to take a hard look at my own personal fitness and be honest with myself about how I was affecting him—whether I was staying in the center of him and not interfering with him,” she said. “I concentrated on my nutrition and started running and exercising. It took a lot of effort and focus, and I had to deal with some issues in my past in the process. But I think I’ve made a really good start, and I’m hopeful to continue.”
Holder admitted that the mental pressure had always been one of her biggest challenges, and she showed how much she’d overcome that by keeping her cool when she was held on course and lost track of her time. She also held her nerves in check on the final day, when she had to enter the ring as the last rider of the day, in the lead. And she didn’t get rattled when two rails fell.
She also didn’t let last year’s problems on cross-country affect her plan. “This year, he’s so much stronger and more trusting of me,” she said. “I was riding a plan that revolved around believing in him as one of the best horses in the competition. My mentality was that I was going to let him shine, rather than try to prevent any mistakes. It was a much more positive outlook.”
She credited Aubrey Dunkerton as one of her greatest helpers in the process. “She’s my groom, but she’s also phenomenal eyes on the ground, a good friend and a great bodyguard for Comet and me,” she said.
She said Comet would be spending some time out in the paddock, enjoying getting as dirty as possible. And for now, she isn’t sure what is next on his agenda.
“From Fair Hill on, I had my sights set on Kentucky,” she said. “Now it’s time to look to the next horizon and make plans for the future.”
Accidents Mar Cross-Country Day
While Dutton and Holder celebrated new milestones with their horses at Kentucky, two serious accidents on cross-country detracted from the day. The falls resulted in the euthanasia of two horses and
serious injuries to one rider (For commentary on the accidents, see Forum p. 43).
Laine Ashker and Frodo Baggins flipped over Fence 5, the Flower Basket. Frodo Baggins, a 13-year-old, New Zealand Thoroughbred, had to be euthanized that evening, and Ashker remains in the hospital, with punctured lungs and a broken jaw that required surgery, along with broken ribs and clavicle.
Sarah Hansel lost The Quiet Man, her 12-year-old, Irish cross gelding (by Cavalier), when they fell at the Footbridge, Fence 13. He was euthanized Sunday morning when veterinarians gave a grim prognosis for his fractured scapula, although Hansel was not seriously injured.
Capt. Mark Phillips, the U.S. Equestrian Team’s eventing chef d’equipe, was adamant that riders need to be more responsible on the course. “Laine Ashker’s fall was one of the worst I’ve seen in my life,” he said. “You can not go out cross-country and ride like that.”
He believes the U.S. Equestrian Federation, U.S. Eventing Association and coaches need to redouble efforts on informing people about safe riding. “The education needs to get out there so people don’t make these sort of moves cross-country,” he said. “While these continue, tragic accidents will continue.”
The Flower Basket has been on the course for three years and hasn’t caused any previous jumping penalties.
While the morning session of cross-country went exceedingly well, with nine double-clear rounds out of 19 starters and only four riders with jump penalties, the afternoon riders had much more trouble, with only 10 riders completing without jumping penalties out of 21 starters.
“The extraordinary thing is that in the morning, the course looked very easy, and in the afternoon, it looked quite difficult,” said Phillips. “People were not worried about the course until it jumped up and bit them in the ass. You don’t have to relax much, and you have trouble. People were thinking it was easier than it was. When you go out on course, you need to be frightened, have some adrenaline and be focused to keep making the right moves.”
Even before the accidents at Kentucky, safety had become the hottest topic in eventing, following the deaths of two horses and serious injuries to Darren Chiacchia at the Red Hills Horse Trials (Fla.) in March. But Rolex Kentucky cross-country course designer Mike Etherington-Smith, of Great Britain, said he didn’t let the discussions change his plans for the course.
“Safety is the No. 1 priority all the time, and it always has been,” he said.
He put the onus of responsibility for safety on the riders. “The competitors have to respect the fences at all levels,” he said. “As soon as you lose respect, you start going too fast.
“In recent years, course designers have been doing too much for the riders, and they are losing some of the skills they have to have,” he continued. “Even at the upper levels, you see riders going too fast at coffins and wonder where they learned to ride like that. It’s a risk sport, and if you don’t like the risk, don’t play. We’ve all got a shared responsibility, but you do wonder what some coaches tell their riders.”
“There was a lot of good in the day, although it’s terrible for [the riders who had accidents],” said Dutton. “It’s just been a bad patch for the sport. We always need to look for ways to improve, but you are never going to get away from accidents. Riders have to be responsible and prepared and have their horses prepared, but things will still happen. Things happen in any sport.”