Hilary Watson and Iridescent Cat.
Hilary Watson inspired while living and in death with her determined fight to live to fullest during the worst times. Photo by Hart Photos

Hilary Watson’s Legacy Larger Than Life Itself

Her life cut short by the scourge of our day, Hilary Watson’s legacy is as safe as houses.

Watson, who died in November after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, was honored at the NCHA Futurity with the Mary Kingsbury Amateur Sportsmanship Award.

Watson lived as an exemplar to the spirit of longtime NCHA Amateur Committee supporter Mary Kingsbury, who died of cancer in 2016. The award recognizes an amateur rider who has made contributions to the sport of cutting, the horse and the association. Recipients must show dedication to the sport, and also exhibit kindness, integrity, honesty, respect and compassion.

“I’m bragging on her here, but she was a leader, she loved the sport and brought a lot of people joy in this sport,” said her husband, golf legend Tom Watson, clearly emotional after receiving the award on her behalf at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas. “She made great friends throughout the sport. 

“I was always impressed by how she could ride a horse [while sick] and be so radiant about her life. I never saw her down. She did not let her disease control the way she wanted to live her life.”

That included continuing to compete throughout her ordeal, in between chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and a major surgery. Her husband, who has set aside his golf clubs for a saddle, joked that in her last year of life she won more money than he did.

It didn’t matter whether she felt good or not, she told the Kansas City Star, she was going to get on the horse. “And have some fun doing it. That’s been a godsend for me.”

“She didn’t let it get her down,” Tom Watson said. “She’s a lot stronger person than I ever thought about being.”

Hilary Watson’s cutting achievements include advancing to the Unlimited Amateur finals at all of NCHA’s Triple Crown shows. She placed fifth at last year’s NCHA Futurity on Full Metal Jacket. Despite her illness and the debilitating treatments, she continued to compete at a high level, earning more than $72,000 in 2019, her triumphs including senior titles at the NCHA Summer Spectacular and the Pacific Coast Futurity.

In all, she won more than $400,000, according to Equi-Stat.

“She was one of the most fun human beings I’ve ever been around,” said Tom Arnn, the Watsons’ head trainer at their farm in Kansas. “We grew to be like a brother and sister instead of an employee. We were extremely close. It’s family. There are just so many things she loved doing.”

Hilary Watson grew up in Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe. In her native country, she qualified for the 1976 Rhodesian Olympic team in the long jump, high jump and hurdles. She also enjoyed English horse events, but it was a fateful visit to Windward Stud, at the time the home of Frank Merrill in Oklahoma, that was life changing, Tom Watson said.

“She got on the back of a cutting horse and started a whole new arena in her life.”

It was a passion she passed on to her husband, who at first didn’t understand it because “I wasn’t a horseman.”

He followed her from event to event, his role to take pictures. Finally, he couldn’t help but want to be in the arena, on the stage. And he jumped in with both feet into the ocean “without a life preserver.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do in life, I think.”

Four years later, he won his first buckle and a check of $1,000, in November at the Waco Texas Futurity, winning the $50,000 Amateur Derby aboard 2015 gelding Double Cat Flash (High Brow CD x CR Little Cat x Dual Rey).

It was bittersweet. He was overjoyed with winning, but devastated his wife, nearing the end, couldn’t be there to share it.

“I cried like a baby,” Watson said. “Hilary wasn’t there. She was struggling at that time. I went around the corner and cried like a baby.”