Fair Hill, Md., October 28, 2001 -- What a heartbreaker! Phillip Dutton was on his way to winning his second Fair Hill International eventing title in a row when a dropped rail at the last stadium jumping fence instantly transformed him into a runner-up.
We knew an exciting ending to this 3-star event was guaranteed with U.S. Olympic gold medalist David O'Connor right on Phillip's heels by just 0.4 penalties going into the final phase. But who thought it would be this kind of cliffhanger? Not even the principal players.
Let me set the stage. The course designed by Sally Ike, the U.S. Equestrian Team's director of show jumping activities, was plenty challenging for the 62 horses who attempted it. They were the survivors out of the original 94 starters, many of whom failed to make it through either cross-country or this morning's vet check.
Anyway, a measure of Sally's prowess was that there were only three double-clear trips in stadium, since the time allowed of 120 seconds proved to be too tight for many of those attempting to stay within it while keeping the jumps up.
One of the double-clears belonged to David and The Native, the rather cantankerous black Thoroughbred who has a penchant for nipping.
As Phillip trotted Cayman Went into the new arena, with its sand and rubber footing, I felt my nerves jangling. What was it like for him, I wondered, knowing he couldn't make a mistake?
The Australian Olympic team double gold medalist was cautious, coaxing his horse to jump neatly (as opposed to David's mount, who rapped several fences) and adding strides to make sure the bay gelding didn't get flat. But then the Pennsylvania-based rider decided to take a cut at the final fence, fearing he would incur a time penalty that would put him second. Cayman got a little flat, and the back rail came down. Five penalties. Ironically, he still had more than 5 seconds left on the clock; Phillip had lost track of the time.
He was a good sport about it, managing a smile afterwards and saying, "Not to worry. This time last week I would have been happy with second." He explained he did not even dare think of that aboard a 7-year-old, up against so many other contenders.
"It's just that when you're in first, it's always a bit harder when you drop back," said Dutton. "The sport's so competitive, you just need things to go your way. It didn't quite go his (Cayman's) way. If I could do it over again, certainly I'd take more time coming to the last jump. I made the mistake of thinking I was a bit slow, so I had to make up the time and that's what happened."
But for Dutton, whose wife, Evie, gave birth to twins early Saturday morning, things still turned out well enough. "It was a memorable weekend. Something I'll never forget," grinned Phillip.
People whose last names began with O' dominated the top five and took a good share from the center-ring table loaded with handsome trophies (I liked the bronze jumping horse) and ribbons. David O'Connor got third on his other mount, Tigger Too, who was tied for 19th after dressage with The Native. David O'Brien finished fourth on the Irish import, Fox-in-Flight, and Karen O'Connor came in fifth on Upstage. She actually could have been second if she managed a clean round with her other horse, Grand Slam, but the chestnut dropped three rails, putting him ninth. Without those 15 penalties, she would have edged Dutton.
Team O'Connor didn't dream it had a chance of winning with The Native, whose jumping talent hasn't always been easy to channel because he is "difficult-minded."
David has had, "good times on him and bad times on him."
This was one of the good times; another year at Fair Hill, the rider said, "he stopped in the mud and I fell off him."
It's been quite a year for David. He also won Rolex-Kentucky with Giltedge, making him the U.S. Equestrian Team spring champion, and now the fall champion as well, since Fair Hill carries that title. Looking toward next year's World Equestrian Games, he has five possibilities for making the team. They include his two horses here, though they still need to be tested in a 4-star; his 1999 Fair Hill winner, Rattle 'n' Hum and his two Olympic mounts, Giltedge and Custom Made, who don't seem to want to retire.
But David also knows that luck plays a big role in this sport. While he saluted The Native, saying "he tries his heart out," David noted he was fortunate that he did not incur faults for the poles he hit.
"You do that on some days and they all fall down. You do it on other days, and you can't make them fall down. It's a little bit out of your hands."