By Emily Randolph
The far, wood-paneled wall of Phillip Dutton’s barn office is adorned with sizable, framed ribbons — among them, a large green ribbon that accompanied his bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics and a tricolor award signifying his win in the 2008 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Each one is a testament to Phillip’s innate talent, tenacity and the hard work that he has poured into the sport of eventing.
Above Phillip’s desk is another wall hanging, matching the size and scale of the framed ribbons: a photo of his twin daughters, Mary and Olivia. The photo is proof of another integral part of Phillip’s life: his family.
While it’s Phillip’s own skill set and dedication that have propelled him to the Olympic podium on three occasions, it’s his family and the relationships that he shares with those close to him — both horse and human — that have helped fuel his drive, shaped much of his perspective and kept him loving the sport of eventing as much today as he did at the beginning.
Coming to America
Before he was a six-time Olympian, a three-time Olympic medalist and a household name in the eventing world, Phillip was riding and working on his family’s sheep and cattle farm in Australia.
Then in 1991, at age 27, Phillip made the move from Australia to the United States with not much to his name but one valuable asset: True Blue Girdwood, the Australian-bred Thoroughbred who would ultimately launch his career.
Phillip’s plan was to develop True Blue Girdwood in the U.S. before likely going to England, a common destination for Australian eventers at the time.
“I felt that if I went to England initially, I would have been a very small fish in a big pond,” Phillip explained. “I’d been to America before, and I always liked the country. Somebody who was advising me at the time said, ‘For a day worked anywhere in the world, you’ll get a better reward for it in America,’ and I always remembered that. So, I thought, You know what, I’ll come to America, the idea being that I’d move on to England once my horse was a bit further along.”
At least, that was the idea until Phillip met Evie Jones.
The pair crossed paths in Pennsylvania at a time when Evie, who had grown up riding primarily hunters, was looking to get back into riding, and Phillip encouraged her to try eventing. Evie became one of Phillip’s first students in 1991, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I met a cute girl, so I stayed here, and 30 years later, I’m still here!” Phillip said.
In the years that followed their initial meeting, Phillip and Evie’s relationship grew and developed simultaneously alongside Phillip’s eventing career. In 1996, Phillip made his Olympic debut in Atlanta, where he and True Blue Girdwood helped the Australians take home the team gold medal.
“True Blue Girdwood was a great first international horse for me,” Phillip said. “As naive as I was, whatever courses or competitions I put in front of him, he took it on and did it. In our own green and less established way, we figured out how to get through those bigger competitions. To go to my first Olympics with him in the country that I’d moved to was amazing.”
Two years later, Phillip married Evie, and in 2000, Phillip returned to the Olympics to again win team gold for Australia, this time aboard House Doctor and on the team’s home turf in Sydney.
In 2001, Phillip and Evie, now Evie Dutton, shared another milestone: the birth of their twin daughters, making the couple the parents of three young girls, including Evie’s daughter and Phillip’s stepdaughter, Lee Lee Jones.
Raising Girls and Going After Goals
While Phillip and Evie are both quick to state that they are far from experts when it comes to raising young girls while simultaneously pursuing competitive excellence, they seem to be doing something right. The girls are kind, intelligent and each talented in their own ways, and Phillip’s level of success has only increased.
Watching Evie and Phillip work together, it’s clear that, over the years, they have developed rhythms and routines that play well to each of their strengths.
“I always say that Phillip’s office is on the back of a horse, so I try to do all of the office work —entries, bookkeeping, invoicing and that sort of thing,” explained Evie, who spends her mornings working from a barn office adjacent to Phillip’s. “Phillip’s a big-picture guy, and I’m more about the minutia. Sometimes to a fault, but it seems to work.”
“Being a competitor, you have to be a bit selfish,” said Phillip, who continually strives to balance traveling and competing with time spent with his family. “You’ve got to take the time and make sure that you’re improving every day, because your competitors are. Everybody you’re competing against is getting better every day, so you have to always be after that. Having said that, there’s not much in life if you don’t have your loved ones and family around you.”
As the girls grew up, Phillip and Evie encouraged them to pursue their own hobbies, with Lee Lee and Olivia taking a keen interest in the horses and Mary finding enjoyment in outside pursuits such as field hockey and theatre.
“We’ve got different facets in our family that we’re trying to put time into, and we basically just do our best,” Phillip said. “I don’t think that we’ve got any magic or that we do it better than anybody else, but when we’re together we try to make sure we enjoy that time.”
Throughout the girls’ early lives, when Phillip was not home at the family’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, odds were good that he was riding to top finishes at an event somewhere in the world. In fact, to condense all of Phillip’s success and results from the early 2000s to just a few sentences in no way does him justice. However, to discuss each win or accolade over the span of a decade and a half could likely fill a book.
In 2006, with his career in the U.S. flourishing and largely because of the support of American owners, Phillip made what he cites as “one of the toughest decisions I went through” and switched from Australian to U.S. citizenship. In 2007, Phillip earned his first medals for Team USA: team gold and individual silver at the Pan American Games. In 2008, he topped the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI4*, and he has yet to miss an Olympic or World Equestrian Games (WEG) appearance since his WEG debut in 1994. Still arguably the king of U.S. eventing today, Phillip’s consistent success earned him the U.S. leading eventing rider title for 13 years from 1998 to 2012.
A Year of Highs and Lows
Amidst nearly two decades of banner years for Phillip, 2016 is still a standout. With horses including Mighty Nice, Mr. Candyman and Fernhill Fugitive, Phillip amassed more than 10 top-five finishes in CCI3* and CCI4* competition, and in August of that year, Phillip earned his first individual Olympic medal, a bronze aboard Mighty Nice at the Rio Olympic Games.
The bronze medal win was a special and emotional one for the entire team involved, as Mighty Nice’s owner, Bruce Duchossois, had passed away two years prior, before getting to see his dream realized.
“Rio and the hard work and years that led up to that moment is really a standout memory for me,” Evie said. “That it was Bruce’s horse and that Caroline Moran, who was such a good friend of Bruce’s and who was supporting the horse, was there — really just that whole team feeling — made it so special. It was a culmination of a lot of hard work on Phillip’s part, but it was also just the whole package of everyone involved that made it an incredible moment.”
After experiencing the highest of highs in Rio that August, only a few months later, tragedy struck.
That December, Lee Lee, home from the University of Pennsylvania where she was pursuing a master’s in social work, was cantering on the family farm’s exercise track when the horse she was riding bucked and slipped, causing them both to go down. The horse got up uninjured immediately, but he had landed on Lee Lee.
Though Lee Lee was wearing a helmet, she suffered a traumatic brain injury known as a diffuse axonal injury. The results of such an injury are widespread, meaning the damage was not localized to one side or area of Lee Lee’s body, but instead continue to impact her entire brain and body function.
“People always say don’t take anything for granted, but you really experience what that means when something like that happens,” Evie said.
“After the accident, I was spending so much time thinking about ‘What if?’ and if there was anything that I could have done to prevent it,” Phillip said. “It was a freak accident, but you definitely have those thoughts. You contemplate your future and what you’re going to do.
“Then Jodi Dady, who was an owner of ours at the time and a good friend of ours that got on well with Lee Lee, called me and said, ‘I just want you to remember that Lee Lee was doing what she loved,’” continued Phillip. “I realized that’s true; it wasn’t something we forced her to do or anything. It was what she loved. So, from then on, I was able to progress and grow and continue on.”
In the months and years that followed, the eventing community rallied around the Duttons, becoming #LeeLeeStrong as they raised funds and support for the well-loved rider.
“We’re so grateful for the support of the eventing community, friends and family in the wake of Lee Lee’s accident that continues to this day, over four years later,” said Evie, remembering that family can extend well beyond those related by blood or marriage. “Horse sports are such a 24/7, all-encompassing business and lifestyle. Your owners, your students and all of your support crew, it all becomes just a big family.”
All in the Family
Today, the Dutton “family” includes a supportive team of owners, students, staff, fans and sponsors, including those such as Cosequin and Triple Crown that have been partnered with Phillip for nearly 20 years.
“Talking about what goes into being successful in this sport, the owners that you have and the people that support you are such a crucial factor,” said Phillip, who is quick to mention each owner individually and give them the recognition they deserve: Michael Bombar, Bridget and Mark Colman, Art and Justina Dodge, Susan and John Haldeman, John and Stephanie Ingram, David and Candace Garrett, Annie Jones, Kevin Keane, Suzanne Lacy, Caroline Moran, Graham and Anita Motion, Simon Roosevelt, Stephanie Speakman, Tom Tierney, Isabella Timon, Dave and Patricia Vos and Steve and Renea Willham.
“It’s all a team,” Phillip said. “Our owners play a big part. Longtime head groom Emma Ford plays a big part. Our vet, Dr. Kevin Keane, plays a big part. It’s a whole package and a whole process of together getting the horses to the top of the sport.
“You’ve got to enjoy the day-to-day part of it — the grind of bringing along the horses — and the people that you’re doing it with,” continued Phillip, who credits his family and support system with helping him to go into each competition mentally strong as well.
“When you leave that start box, you don’t want to go out worrying about messing up or what people will think,” Phillip explained. “When you’ve got family and people who love you, you know they’re still going to be beside you. They’re going to be disappointed along with you if something goes wrong, but they’re always going to support you. That’s an important ingredient in being able to compete — knowing that if it doesn’t go right, you’ve still got your family behind you.”
Looking to the Future
With his family’s support, Phillip is now looking firmly toward the future, and at a fit 57 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.
“I was very inspired by Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, because he kind of proved that there’s no set age or number for when you can do your best,” said Phillip, who continually finds inspiration in the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Lance Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and others who have changed their sport or industry. “Certainly, I think along those lines and don’t think there’s a set number when you have to stop.
“I’d like to go for as long as I can, but I also don’t want to be stupid about it,” Phillip continued. “I don’t see a retirement date at this stage. As long as I’m not embarrassing me or the family, I think I can keep going for a while!”
As his career has advanced, Phillip has also found great satisfaction in coaching the next generation of riders, including many of the top riders in the country. On any given day after his own riding is done, he can generally be found teaching lessons, giving clinics around the country and coaching his own daughter, Olivia.
And of course, Phillip is focused on his own future competition goals, with current top horses including Carlchen, Fernhill Singapore, Sea Of Clouds, Quasi Cool, and Z, along with young up-and-comers like 5-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred Lincoln’s Address.
“We’re at a point now where we’ve picked out a great group of horses and can see them through,” Phillip said. “The pipeline is there, and there’s a lot of enjoyment in following that pipeline to the dream — to the five-star level and the teams that we’re all aiming for.”
Hopefully, to more of the moments that, when shared with family, ultimately make the sport so incredibly rewarding, and, for Phillip, help provide the point of it all: “I’ve got this drive and ambition for myself, but what’s the point of it if you’re not able to share it with somebody?”
For more information, visit phillipdutton.com
Photos by Emily Randolph, unless noted otherwise