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Requiem for a champion

Arcadius’ death, following its Iroquois win, leaves jockey Crowley searching for answers

Posted: May 15, 2012 2:54 p.m.
Updated: May 16, 2012 5:00 a.m.

As he prepared to tack up Cougar at Heart for a mid-Monday morning gallop at the Springdale Race Course, Brian Crowley peered beneath the neck of the 5-year-old mare and pointed a finger across the way to the vacant stall 618 which was occupied by Arcadius.
The slightest bit of a smile creased the face of the 31-year-old Irish steeplechase jockey as he talked about a scene which unfolded as recently as four or five days earlier.
“He’d had his head looking out and his two ears out (of the stall),” Crowley said as his voice trailed off. “To know that you’re not going to see that again …”
In a way, Monday’s rain reflected the mood around Ashwell Stables, the Camden base for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard where pleasantries were exchanged in muted tones, but with a smile nonetheless, to a reporter who stopped by the barn. Who would have blamed the workers had they given the cold shoulder to the visitor, considering the scene which transpired two days earlier in the 71st running of the Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville.
On what should have been the barn’s crowning achievement of the 2012 National Steeplechase Association spring season, the post-race death of Arcadius, an 8-year-old gelding, drastically altered the mood of the Sheppard team.
Arcadius upset the field in the $150,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle Stakes for his second career Grade I victory. In the process, he prevented Tax Ruling from winning the Nashville feature for an unprecedented third consecutive year. Not only did the son of Giant’s Causeway spoil a three-peat bid by the defending Colonial Cup champion, but he led a 1-2-3 finish for Sheppard-conditioned jumpers with stablemates Divine Fortune and Nationbuilder coming home second and third, respectively.
Reportedly, Arcadius dropped to the ground after being unsaddled in the moments following the 3-mile race over National Fences. He would regroup and did not show any lingering effects from the race as he was walked back to the winner’s circle for the post-race trophy presentation and photos with Crowley, Sheppard and his owner, Ed Swyer of Hudson River Farms.
Minutes later, in the area reserved for cooling down the horses, Arcadius again fell. And despite the aid of veterinarians, course workers and Sheppard assistant trainers Jill Waterman and Toby Edwards, all applying ice packs to him in the event in which the ailment might have been heat-related, Arcadius’ heart simply gave out.
The grisly scene was snapped by a Nashville newspaper photographer. By Sunday, the picture and story had made their way to various worldwide news outlets and could be easily accessed via the Internet. “They couldn’t have used a picture of him jumping the last (fence)? They had to use that?” Crowley said when asked about the photo.
In a sport which is, at times, both majestic and terrifying with horses and jockeys running and clearing obstacles at more than 20 miles per hour, Arcadius’ demise came not as the result of a spill. After having tended to the Iroquois champion, track veterinarian Monty McInturff told a reporter from the Nashville-based Tennessean newspaper that Arcadius had succumbed due to natural causes.
“It did not appear to be anything that happened during the race,” McInturff said in the story which ran in Sunday’s edition of the Tennessean. “This all occurred after the race.
“When I got to him on the scene, his heart was very irregular and he had a very weak blood pressure. We attempted to help the horse, but he had had a heart attack. He died very quickly.”
According to Iroquois officials, the autopsy showed that Arcadius died as the result of a pulmonary aneurysm which was not connected to his performance in the race.
In the same article, it was reported that Percy Warner Park had just had rain that day and the temperature for the start of the seven-race card was 70 degrees.
Crowley picked up a copy of the Tennessean on his way back to Camden on Sunday. He countered a claim in the story which said that he declined to comment on the race or the situation which unfolded following the event.
“Nobody asked to talk with me,” he said. “I would have talked about it.”
Monday provided Crowley with his first chance to talk about a horse which had come to help define his brief ---- since 2010 --- American riding career. Of Crowley’s 30 wins over fences in this country, three have come aboard Arcadius with his first victory coming home first under the wire being aboard Arcadius in a $30,000 Woodward-Kirkover Sweepstakes in the 2010 Carolina Cup. That victory came a week after Honour Emblem and Crowley were bumped to first in the NSA season opener in Aiken after the race winner was disqualified as the result of a post-race positive.
Crowley would ride Arcadius to a second in the $75,000 A.P. Smithwick Steeplechase in Saratoga in August of 2010. On Sept. 25, 2010, the horse and rider gave Sheppard a landmark victory by capturing the $100,000 Helen Haskell Sampson Hurdle Stakes at Monmouth Park. Not only was this the first Grade I win in this country for Crowley, but it was also Sheppard’s 1,000th winner in the NSA ranks, becoming the circuit’s  first conditioner to have reached the four-figure plateau.
Crowley said he and Arcadius had been through a lot in a little more than two years.
“He was a horse that meant an awful lot to me,” Crowley said. “I’ve been in racing a long, long time; I’ve been involved with horses for a long time. It’s actually when a horse goes that you realize how much he meant. He was the first horse I sat on and rode in America. He was my first official winner in America, here in Camden in the spring of 2010.
“He’ll be sadly missed. He’s a horse with the heart of a lion. He always tried 100 percent … Saturday was his D-day.”
The lasting image of Arcadius will be that of his final race before en estimated gathering of 25,000 race patrons in Music City.
The six-horse field would reel in pace-setting Tax Ruling with Arcadius surging to the front late in the race. With two fences left to be jumped, Divine Fortune was rebuffed in trying to grab the lead. It was vintage Arcadius, Crowley said.
“I got a great run throughout the race. He jumped fantastic and he traveled fantastic,” said the native of County Cork, Ireland. “To be fair, Divine Fortune had come to me, but my fellow was pulling out all the stops to win. I got fantastic leaps out of my horse the last two jumps.”
Arcadius would outrun Divine Fortune and Darren Nagle, who had also been aboard Arcadius at various stages in his career, to win by a length in a clocking of 5:36.20.
Crowley said, given the circumstances, it was appropriate that his mount went out with a Grade I win in his final time on the race course. But as he made his way around Cougar at Heart in her stall, Crowley said he was never given any indication on Saturday that while aboard Arcadius that his mount was in any danger or, in distress.
When he turned to look at the commotion after Arcadius was being led back to the stabling area, Crowley knew something was wrong. When he received word of the horse’s passing, he was numb. He was still searching for the right words on Monday.
“Never,” he answered with a shake of his head when asked if he had ever been part of anything like this in his career.
“I’ve seen and I’ve ridden horses to have, maybe, broken a bone during a race or an incident like that. But never in my wildest dreams have I seen, heard of or, been in a situation like I was in after winning the race. It’s still a shock, to be fair.”
In their post-race comments to the press, both Sheppard and McInturff echoed what Crowley said he saw and felt in that Arcadius showed no signs of struggle during the race and through the finish. Saturday was simply Arcadius’ time.
Crowley is expected to get his regular rides this weekend in NSA events in Radnor, Pa., and Lexington, Ky., on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. He said he has put what happened in Nashville behind him and can and will do his job on other horses he will board. He then put this equine tragedy in human terms.
“It’s the same as a human who could be walking down the road; the same thing could happen,” he said. “It’s happened to runners after finishing a marathon. We’ll just have to move on.”
Moving on yes, but, Brian Crowley will do so with a heavy heart. which any animal lover understands.
“It was very sad. It still is quite of a shock … it’s difficult,” he said as he pushed around a pile of straw with his riding boots while gazing out at the steady mist outside.
“A lot of people say that you shouldn’t get attached to horses … But it’s not until a horse is gone that you realize how much he meant to you.”

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