Arcadius: One Moment in Time

- -

ST’s Joe Clancy wrote a sports feature in the May 15 New York Times that covers the victory and death of Arcadius at the Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tenn. The powerful event struck Joe and pretty much anyone else who was there. You can read the Times article online or in the print edition (page B13). Here, Joe writes about what it was like.

I keep thinking of Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount basketball star who died during a game in 1990. He threw down a dunk, collapsed while running back up the court and died of a heart problem.

Arcadius was not a basketball player, not even a human. He died when an artery near his heart ruptured and caused a heart attack a few minutes after winning the Iroquois Steeplechase. Owned by Hudson River Farm and trained by Jonathan Sheppard, the 8-year-old gelding died doing something athletic, heroic, excellent. I supposed he died trying, but that’s tough to say. Painful.

In today’s world, Arcadius dying was an event. It went to the local newspapers and television stations in Nashville, the Associated Press, Facebook, Twitter. Of course there were angry, dumb, uninformed reactions. But, of course, there were also powerful statements of grief, care, impact. They all mean something, too.

I was at Nashville, standing on that race course when Arcadius came back after his win. I talked to jockey Brian Crowley while he was still aboard the 8-year-old bay gelding. I could have touched him. I didn’t, didn’t think it was right. He wasn’t my horse, it wasn’t my win. But, at that moment, in that time, I was proud of him and I wish now I’d given him a pat on the shoulder, something.

After he fell, I hoped for something that would make Arcadius rise to his feet. It looked like heat exhaustion, even on a cool day. Surely, he’d cool off and get up – to applause instead of tears. Of course, he stayed down. The first person I really spoke to was Mike Benson, the horse’s groom. He was holding Arcadius’ halter, shank and bridle – useless, empty pieces of leather and metal now. The conversation was not an interview, more of a “how could that happen?” exchange. Benson gave owner Ed Swyer the halter with the brass ARCADIUS nameplate, and offered a simple “Sorry, Boss.” I tried to tell  him he did right by his horse, all the time. I helped organize a statement by course veterinarian Dr. Monty McInturff, who was great – professional, stoic, hurt. He explained what happened. Then I found Crowley in the jockeys’ tent. Shaken, barely able to dress, he apologized for not being a very good interview. He didn’t need to. He spoke from the  heart for his horse, himself, anyone who ever sat on or led in a Thoroughbred. He used the word gobsmacked, in about as appropriate a manner as you could. Back at the barn across the race course, I found Sheppard. He’s seen everything in racing, or so you’d think, and he put his thoughts into words too.

I’d have stayed there all night, gathered it all up but I had to catch a plane. A plane that left in less than an hour. After calling my wife and my brother, and apologizing to the rental car guy for not filling up the gas tank, I made the flight. I opened my laptop as soon as permission came over the Southwest intercom. In a window seat, jockey Xavier Aizpuru to my left, starter Barry Watson next to him, I started writing, writing, writing. Over a dinner of pretzels, peanuts and a Coors Light, the framework of a story poured out.

The remainder came at home in Fair Hill, at the kitchen table, from about midnight to 2 a.m. And finally a little more Sunday and Monday, the latter in a Panera Bread in Newark. People tell me that I captured the horse, his people, the moment, what it all meant, with dignity and grace. I still don’t think it’s right, but it probably never will be. Regardless, it feels like a must-read for racing fans, horse people, anyone really. I’m sorry it had to be written, I’m sorry Arcadius didn’t get up, but I’m glad there are people to read it.