Brian Crowley left Heathrow with three bags and a carry-on. He landed in Philadelphia Jan. 12, 2010, with the carry-on, that’s it. In the dead of winter, in the snow, to Jonathan Sheppard’s farm.
It was a long, cold winter, living in Sheppard’s tenant house, the one simply called, the 704 House. It has ghosts and stories – and ghosts with stories. Rumor had it Crowley taped off a corner of the living room, called it his room. He lived on a couch, begged rides to the corner store, rode out each morning, figuring it had to get better.
“I had to go into T.J.Maxx and buy new clothes, for four weeks it was bear minimum. Wake up every morning and you couldn’t even see a bicycle on the ground there was that much snow, all kinds of weather,” Crowley said. “I was riding out in polos, no boots, a helmet too small for me, I was riding out in trainers, nothing was going for me, I says, ‘It can’t get any worse. It can only get better, you know. At least, I’ll stick here and give it a shot, my best shot, if I don’t make it, so be it.’ “
He’s made it.
The Irishman swept the double on Thursday’s card, winning the A.P. Smithwick on Bill Pape’s Divine Fortune and the optional claimer with Hudson River Farm’s Royal Rossi. Going back to last year, if you’re keeping score – and you should be keeping score – Crowley has won five of the last eight jump races at Saratoga. All for Sheppard.
They hit it off at the start.
“I met him about four weeks after I came, at the farm, I was riding Arcadius,” Crowley remembered. “He said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m the new fellow, I’m Brian Crowley.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s right,’ and walked away. I was thinking, ‘This has gotten off to a good start.’ “
Crowley eventually made his way to Camden, S.C., schooled and breezed horses in the sunlight and Sheppard gave him a chance on Arcadius at the Carolina Cup races and they duly won. Crowley went home to Ireland, re-upped his visa and returned in time for Saratoga last year. Nobody had ever heard of him and he instantly went on a tear – winning three of the five races including the New York Turf Writers Cup. He won a Grade I at Monmouth and a novice stakes at Far Hills.
A year later, he’s back in Saratoga with the same touch.
After sweeping yesterday’s early double, he untucked his silks and watched the optional claimer unfold on the big screen in the clubhouse.
He chirped, clucked, even uttered “go on, go on, go on,” as Royal Rossi came to the last fence, just like in real life. Definitive at his fences and determined through the lane, Crowley rides a race like he’s the patron, seemingly in the right spot at every spot.
“It’s become very lucky for me, I don’t know what it is, our horses just seem to fire and come right at this time, all I can do is ride them,” Crowley said. “I just think Jonathan Sheppard’s style of horse suits me. I love to sit and creep, nine out of 10 times I have plenty of gears to accelerate when I need them. When you’re riding good horses, that’s about as simple as it is. I know the horses inside out.”
Crowley rides out every morning for Sheppard and credits those sessions for part of his success in the afternoon.
“I won on Lead Us Not last year just from purely riding him out at home, I knew the horse,” Crowley said. “To wake up and ride out two or three Grade I winners every morning, I’m the luckiest man in jump racing in America.”
After winning 48 races in the 2002-03 season in Britain, Crowley broke his neck while falling from Real Cracker at Ludlow in February 2004. He returned 10 months later and realized that time flies. He had been replaced in Venetia Williams’ yard and forgotten about in all the other yards.
He battled his weight and only mustered 11 wins in 2004-05 and scraped out 10 in 2005-06. On Valentine’s Day, 2006, he quit. Three years later, after bouncing around Ireland, he tried again, winning with one of six rides in the 2009-10 season. Then he pulled up stakes.
“It all happened over six hours, I woke up one morning and I says, ‘I’m going nowhere in this country, I’ll try America.’ I Facebooked Calvin McCormack and thankfully Calvin got me a job and I was over here in two weeks just like a drop in the hat,” Crowley said. “My opportunity was gone in England even though I was an established rider, you’re very quickly forgotten over there. I was just another rider struggling, riding bad horses to make a few quid. I was fed up with it, I knew I was going nowhere.”
And going to Saratoga.