By Darlene Ricker
Imagine walking into a five-star hotel, opening the door to a lavish suite and being greeted by a horse (yes, a real one) munching hay amidst a throng of partygoers. Or discovering that the white-bearded guy in the red suit jollying up migrant farm workers at their Christmas party is a wealthy man who could have hired a dozen rent-a-Santas. How about learning that someone has sent a private jet to bring your dying mother home after massive surgery so she wouldn’t have to fly in a crowded commercial airliner?
If you knew Bruce Duchossois, those were the types of surprises in store for you.
Bruce died July 2, 2014, at his home in Wellington, Florida, after a long battle with cancer. He left an indelible mark on the equestrian world and on the lives of everyone and every animal he touched.
“Bruce was the person who made you want to pay it forward, “said Dianne Grod of Oceanside, California. “As a result, I have done it and others have, too.” Just a few weeks before his passing, Bruce contributed to a fund that helped prevent the imminent loss of Dianne’s home. “The guy was dying, and he did this for me. There was no way I could have gotten it done. ”
Vice president of the United States Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation, Bruce was inducted this year into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame. In 2013, he received an Equestrian Aid Foundation Luminary Award.
A supporter of high-performance equestrian sport in the United States, Bruce owned top international horses in several disciplines, among them eventing, show jumping and driving. As an exhibitor in the Adult and Amateur-Owner Hunter divisions, Bruce piloted his beloved hunter, Kim’s Song — the horse in the hotel room — to win the AHSA Horse of the Year award in 1973. The mare’s official retirement ceremony had just been held at the Washington International Horse Show.
“Bruce had a stall built for Kim’s Song in the hotel,” said Jeff Wirthman of Wellington, a friend since 1970. “He wasn’t about to let her miss her own retirement party! He never knew a stranger. No one threw a better party! Who else could get the mayor of Washington, D.C., to come to a party with a horse in the middle of the room?”
But life wasn’t all fun and games for Bruce. He reached out to help those not as fortunate as he, both on two and four feet. He contributed to animal shelters and personally took in horses, dogs, cats, birds, turtles, tortoises and other creatures in need. His beloved Chumly (“a cute, scruffy terrier,” as described by Ron Danta of Danny and Ron’s Rescue) came to Bruce for a one-night sleepover. The dog, which had been on death row at a shelter, became a permanent part of Bruce’s family. He also adopted several retired horses from Vinceremos Riding Center in Wellington, the most recent of which, Lexus, arrived at his Aiken, South Carolina, farm a few days before Bruce’s passing.
Ron and Bruce grew up together as childhood friends in their hometown of Barrington, Illinois, where Bruce’s family owned Hill N’ Dale Farm. Ron said the Bruce described by friends in the equestrian world today is the same Bruce he knew as a boy. “Bruce treasured everything in the world — disabled children, horses, dogs … he even adopted some feral cats from our shelter and brought them home as barn cats.”
That side of Bruce has been apparent for decades. “If you were a horse of Bruce’s, you were never wanting for anything,” recalled Olympic three-day eventer Phillip Dutton, who owned numerous horses with Bruce over the years. Their business partnership began years ago when Phillip’s 4* horse, Fair Dinkum, died just before Badminton. “We were friends, and he offered to help me get another horse,” said Phillip.
Their partnership turned into a string of top mounts over the years, including the famous Connaught, which Phillip rode for the U.S. to earn the team gold and individual silver medals at the 2007 Pan American Games, as well as winning the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2008.
Phillip and Bruce had met when the Australian eventing team, for which Phillip then competed, was training at Bruce’s family’s farm in Aiken, South Carolina, for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Phillip said that as well as being a dedicated, competitive horseman, Bruce “was always fun to be around, whether you won or lost … I was very privileged to have him in my life.”
Bruce also meant a lot to other luminaries in the eventing world, particularly Olympian Darren Chiachia. “Bruce was one in a million,” said Darren. “He’s been in my corner for 15 years. He stood by me through everything I’ve been through, when not many have.” Darren, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an eventing accident, said Bruce “was very patient and helped me throughout my recovery. When I needed someone to talk to, he was there. While I fought to get my life and my career back, he was there. How can I ever forget that?”
Jill Ellisofon of West Palm Beach, whose mother was flown home to Aiken courtesy of Bruce after her surgery in Boston, seconded that emotion. “He was there in the best of times and in the worst of times. He was always there.”
Mason Phelps of the Phelps Media Group in Wellington described Bruce as “everybody’s best friend and generous to a fault. He never said no to anyone.” A close friend for decades, he noted that Bruce’s generosity extended far beyond financial contributions. “He was very hands-on. He didn’t just give money; he participated,” added Mason. When the Gay Polo League was preparing to come to Wellington five years ago, he recalled, “Bruce said, ‘How much (money) do you need and tell me what I can do.’” He showed the same support for the National Horse Show when it moved to Kentucky, added Mason. “Even last year, when he was dying, he still participated.”
Bruce served on the board of directors for the National Horse Show Association. He was a member of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, a life member of the United States Equestrian Federation, the American Quarter Horse Association and the U.S. Eventing Association, among other roles. Bruce was executive director of Friends of Handicapped Riders and volunteered his time as a walker within its therapy program.
He was also member of the Aiken Hounds in South Carolina for more than 30 years. A former Aiken Steeplechase Association officer, he owned the Aiken Horse Park.
A dedicated horseman, Bruce continued to ride even five days before his death. “He said it was the most marvelous feeling in the world,” recalled Jack Wetzel.
Meanwhile, Bruce’s legacy lives on. Shortly before his death, another of his horses, Mighty Nice, also ridden by Phillip Dutton, was short listed for the U.S. eventing team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy.
Bruce is survived by his sisters, Dayle Fortino and Kim Duchossois, and several nieces and nephews. The family requests that memorial contributions be made in Bruce’s name to a charity of one’s choosing or to one of the charities closest to his heart: Caridad Center; SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare or Vinceremos Riding Center.