07/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT'S THE SECOND DAY OF THE U.S. equestrian team's three-day event in Lexington, Ky., and, with places on the seven-member Olympic team at stake, the tension is building—not that anyone would be so crass as to mention such a thing. The horses pound around the cross-country course, hurtling fences and water jumps, the riders conscious of the clock ticktocking away—and of a tall and weather-beaten man in tweed cap and Barbour oilcloth coat who watches from the sidelines. When the equestrian competition starts July 21, the tall observer is likely to be, for most TV viewers, the one recognizable member of the team. He is Capt. Mark Phillips, whose marriage to Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and sister of Prince Charles, was the storybook wedding of 1973.
Of the growing roster of former Windsor in-laws—Lord Snowdon and Sarah Ferguson are also members of that exclusive club, and it seems likely that Princess Diana may soon meet the qualifications—Phillips, 47, is the one who has set the postdivorce standard in discretion and industry. He never talks about the royal family, and he continues to work for a living. For the past three years he has been chef d'équipe and technical adviser to the U.S. equestrian team, charged with doing what he can to help them win the gold that has eluded them since 1984.
A world-class horseman in his day—he shared a British team gold at the 1972 Games in Munich—Phillips is considered one of the top equestrian coaches in the world as well as one of the foremost course designers. His hiring by the U.S. equestrian team, after the team's disappointing showing in Barcelona in 1992, was considered a coup in the small, upper-crust world of equestrian competition. "He's an extremely knowledgeable coach, and he has a very good way with the riders," says Jim Wolf, director of the equestrian team. "I think that they universally respect him."
The laconic Phillips is more modest. "My efforts will be concentrated on helping the Americans to do just as well as they can do," he says. To that end he has been crossing the Atlantic on an increasingly frenetic schedule, attending meets and giving advice. "I also teach in Canada. Australia, New Zealand and Europe," he says, "and so, although my principal job is here in America, I might pop into some other countries as well."
All of this leaves him little time for his farmhouse on the 1,400-acre Gatcombe Park estate, about 100 miles from London, where he and Anne lived together for 16 years and where she now resides with her second husband, Tim Laurence, whom she married in 1992. The proximity allows Phillips to share in the upbringing of Peter, 18, and Zara, 15, his children with Anne. "That's something the Princess Royal and I have worked out extremely well," he told the Daily Express on Nov. 5, 1994. "I honestly couldn't tell you whether they spend more time with her or me."
Despite the civilized arrangement—Anne, 45, even allows him to stable his five horses at Gatcombe Park—Phillips still has to deal with Fleet Street speculation about his love life, which he tends to greet with about as much enthusiasm as an unscheduled spill into a water jump. "My private life," he says emphatically, "is private."
It was not, of course, always so. In 1973—before Charles and Di, before Andrew and Fergie—Princess Anne and her Royal Dragoons officer had their royal wedding. Fleet Street raved about the dashing commoner who had landed the willful Anne. Theirs, the British press assured everyone, was a marriage of true souls. Both Mark and Anne were avid riders (she was on the British team in Montreal in 1976). Indeed, Queen Elizabeth was quoted as saying, in a rare display of wit, that the couple would likely have four-legged offspring.
As with so many Windsor marriages, though, the magic evaporated. Phillips, who declined a title, was by turns snubbed and patronized by his royal in-laws. After he bagged most of the grouse during a Scottish shoot, father-in-law Prince Phillip remarked, "Well, he has to be good at something." And Charles, according to Fleet Street, dubbed him Fog because he was "thick and wet" ("wet," in the British context, meaning dull and dreary). The marriage was beset by rumors of affairs by both and was rocked by the publication of love letters from Laurence, a former Queen's equerry, or aide-de-camp, to Anne. Finally, in 1992, a year after Phillips was named in a paternity suit by a New Zealand woman who claimed a one-night stand with him during one of his equestrian pilgrimages, Anne and Mark, separated since 1989, divorced. (Phillips never acknowledged fathering the child, now 10, but in what the British press calls a gentleman's agreement, he pays the mother an undisclosed amount for "equestrian consulting services.")
Phillips's personal life continues to be a matter of interest and speculation—as recently as 1994, the British tabloids gleefully retailed the story of his public spat in the bar of an Irish castle-hotel with then-secretary Carolyn Sanders, ending with a mutual dousing of champagne. Sanders subsequently wed an old boyfriend, with Phillips among the guests.
A survivor of both royal family and Fleet Street antipathies isn't likely to fluster easily. During the Lexington trials, a horse landed in the water after the first jump and veered straight at Phillips. By the time the rider regained control, the animal was practically on top of Phillips.
He never flinched.
MICHELLE GREEN in Lexington