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'Gods have to be shining on us'
Phillip Dutton’s first four trips to the Olympics included two gold medals, booty he claimed while he was a member of the Australian eventing team.
The last trip was memorable mostly for the boot.
“A rule came out before the last Olympics that said our protective boots could not exceed a certain weight,” said Dutton, who is making his second trip to the Olympics as a member of Team USA and fifth overall. “The American federation hadn’t distributed the rule to its various organizations so we were unaware of it.”
Dutton was disqualified after officials deemed his protective boots were too heavy. He talks matter-of-factly about the incident, not placing blame for what ruined years of preparation and left him unable to aid Team USA’s equestrian efforts in Beijing.
There hasn’t been much time to reflect of late anyway in the weeks leading up to the London Games. He didn’t settle on a primary horse (Mystery Whisper) until December, truncating what is usually a years-long process into a matter of a few months.
“This is a galloping sport, so like anything with speed, injuries are part of it,” Dutton said. “It’s pretty easy to tweak a tendon or strain something. Then the horse needs to be rehabbed, which can take over a month. We had a couple injuries.”
Dutton, 48, also never felt 100 percent pleased with the horses he trained at the facility he co-owns in West Grove, Pa. That’s why when he eyed the 12-year-old gelding on a trip back to his native Australia late last year, Dutton didn’t hesitate to make a change.
“It was one of those lucky coincidences that come along,” Dutton said. “I went to Australia looking for a horse for a student of mine. It was supposed to be for her. Then I tried the horse out and could tell he had amazing movement and talent. I begged (owners) Jim and Arden Wildasin to borrow the horse through the Olympic Games.”
Dutton and Mystery Whisperer have won three events together, although Dutton chose to rest the horse at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in April. Dutton finished 10th and 12th, respectively on his backup horses — Mighty Nice and Fernhill Eagle — at the Rolex, one of the most prestigious equestrian events in the world and North America’s marquee competition.
“The horse is good enough to win the whole (Olympics) competition,” Dutton said. “Obviously, coming home with any kind of medal won’t be too disappointing. This is a big competition where the little fractions of points can mean winning the gold or not. The eventing gods have to be shining on us, but I think we’re good enough to win gold.”
Winning on an Australian horse certainly won’t win Dutton any more fans in his former homeland. Dutton moved to the US in 1991 when he helped Australia to consecutive Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2000) in the three-day team competition.
He decided to change nationalities in 2006 and competed at the 2008 Beijing Games as a member of Team USA.
“There has been some ribbing, but I think it’s mostly in jest,” Dutton said of the switching nationalities. “I have been called a ‘turncoat’ a few times. That doesn’t worry me too much. It wasn’t a flippant decision. One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to call up my parents to tell them. They took it great and understood. I have a family here in America. I feel pretty satisfied I did my part for Australia, and they did a lot for me.”
Dutton is seeking to become the third American to win gold in the individual Olympics competition, joining David O’Connor (2000) and Edmund Coffin (1976). In the three-day team competition, the US is seeking its fourth team gold and first since 1984. The top five riders from each country after the three eventing disciplines — dressage, cross country and jumping — count toward the team standings.
Like Dutton, officials at the US Equestrian Federation are upbeat about Team USA’s chances for a strong showing. A major reason for the optimism is the training program implemented in the aftermath of the team’s disappointing seventh-place finish at the 2008 Summer Games.
“I think in terms of depth and the horses we have, it’s as deep as we’ve been in a long time,” said Jim Wolf, director of sport programs for the US Equestrian Federation. “We have also really focused on rider fitness. All our riders are extremely fit. I think we have evolved as a sport and made (fitness) a part of the selection criteria. We worked with the (US Olympic Committee on fitness guidelines). It’s going to be hot in England. It’s going to be taxing. We don’t want the horses to carry any extra weight.”
Dutton, for sure, won’t be carrying it in those boots, a rule that is still in place — and very well understood now — about four years later.
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