May 13, 2022 -- The Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event was highlighted to a great extent by the presence of Mystery Whisper, who's getting a reputation as an exciting wonder horse. His rider, Phillip Dutton, needed to qualify with him for the Olympics in the CCI 3-star here, in order to be eligible for the U.S. team that will compete in London this summer.
He didn't have to win in the process, but he did, and was outstanding. What a treat to see a horse that can do all three phases with flair, executing a smooth dressage test, eating up cross-country and showing respect for the fences in show jumping.
The Australian import, who came over late last year, was one of only two entries in four divisions at the Horse Park of New Jersey to score less than 40 penalties in dressage. (He was marked at 32.6 penalties; Karen O'Connor received 39.6 on Veronica, fifth in the CCI 3-star.) Mystery Whisper was fault-free over the jumps on John Williams' twisting cross-country course highlighted by the "Jersey Shore" water complex, accumulating just 1.2 time penalties because Phillip saw no need to push for extreme speed.
In today's show jumping, he dropped one rail (the first time he's done that all year; Phillip blamed the way he rode to the fence) and accumulated one time penalty. But his total was still a respectable 38.8 penalties, well ahead of second-place Jude's Law, an extremely handsome gray dude, ridden well by Michael Pollard to a 47.6-penalty total.
"Another box ticked," said delighted coach Mark Phillips as Mystery Whisper exited the ring after his victory gallop. Mark had explained to me earlier in the day that a team hoping for a medal at the Olympics needs at least one horse that can score in the low 30s in dressage; he added with a grin that he'd like two or three.
There is time before July, however, to work with outstanding candidates and perhaps bump up their performance level a bit. The "A" training list hasn't been changed this year; an update won't be issued until June 11, when 15 horse/rider combos will be named to the long list. That will be reduced to a short list of 10 before the horses ship to England, where they will train for the Games.
The only three people on the A-list now are Phillip, but with Mighty Nice, his 10th-place horse at Rolex Kentucky--Mystery Whisper's purchase hadn't been confirmed when the list was released; Boyd Martin with Neville Bardos and Otis Barbotiere, third at Rolex, and Sinead Halpin with Manoir de Carneville.
Phillip, of course, was thrilled at how well Mystery Whisper performed. Really, could there be any doubt--the horse already had won two events this year--but anything can happen in eventing. He was smiling as he talked about the weekend.
"I'm really enjoying the horse," said Phillip, who called him, "incredible. It's pretty neat." That's quite a statement coming from the generally low-key rider.
The only downer here is the fact that Jim Wildasin (who also owns Will Coleman's ride, Twizzel) bought the horse for his daughter, Arden, to ride after the Games. That doesn't bother Phillip, even though there will be no Burghley, Badminton or Rolex for him with Mystery Whisper.
"I'm lucky to have the ride on him. That's part of the game. We don't own our horses; we just ride for other people." But he added, "I'm going to make the most of it while I have him."
What's Mystery Whisper like to ride?
"When you first see him, he's not the most imposing animal," Phillip said.
"Once you start working him, the first 10 minutes is just nice and then something clicks and he just goes and really gets the motor underneath him," Phillip observed comparing him to a racehorse that has another gear.
"He's a phenomenal horse, a freak of nature."
Sinead did the CIC 3-star with her horse, nicknamed Tate. These days they've decided to call the CCI long format and the CIC short format. I think that's confusing, because long format makes you think of the old days, when a CCI included roads and tracks and steeplechase. (Remember? Gosh, it seems like a long time ago now.) Anyway, a CCI is longer than a CIC, and I'll leave it at that.
Sinead tied for sixth in dressage with a score of 49.6, then was one of only three in her division to put in a double-clear cross-country. She moved up to third after that, and then second when Will Faudree had the first two elements of the triple down with Pawlow in the show jumping. But the triple tripped her up, too; Tate dropped a pole at the middle element. Rebecca Howard of Canada, who would go on to win the CIC 3-star, led after cross-country and had toppled just one rail with Riddle Master. Her final score was 52.8 to 53.6 for Sinead; very, very close.
I asked Sinead to assess Tate at this point.
Boyd brought Neville to Jersey Fresh, but never intended to run him cross-country here. Instead, he competed in dressage, which did not go well (the score was 54.2 penalties; apparently Neville has taken a dislike to the Horse Park arena) and then did a show jumping round after the regular competition finished this afternoon. He had two fences down; Neville was a handful.
Boyd and I discussed that.
By the way, as I have mentioned in the past, the movie rights to Neville's story have been purchased. (Neville missed a trip to the slaughterhouse after Boyd bought him, and he survived a dreadful stable fire last May.) I suggested to Boyd that if they actually make the movie, there's only one person who should play Boyd: Himself. Who else is better looking and more articulate? And then there's that great Australian accent. (Like Phillip, Boyd was born in Australia and became an American citizen.)