Among the pain, confusion, questions and sadness after the Iroquois Steeplechase May 12 in Nashville, Tenn. came a supreme effort. Arcadius put on a clinic on how to win the Grade I. Because of fate, circumstance, mortality, he paid the ultimate price in the process.
Arcadius came into the $150,000 stakes as a player, a contender, a threat to stop Tax Ruling’s bid at a historic third consecutive victory in the race.
Tax Ruling (Xavier Aizpuru) rambled to the front early, felt some pressure from Decoy Daddy through the first three fences and then established a rhythm – flying fences and forcing the others to back off. Arcadius found a spot behind Decoy Daddy early, and the others – Divine Fortune, Nationbuilder and 2009 race winner Pierrot Lunaire – were content to let the race unfold. Midway, Tax Ruling still showed the way but Brian Crowley nudged Arcadius into second, alongside Decoy Daddy and on the inside. The subtle move set up a win as Arcadius dogged Tax Ruling the rest of the way, never letting the two-time defending Iroquois winner get a breather. Four fences from home, Tax Ruling finally showed a weakness with his first less-than-perfect jump. He still led, but looked vulnerable as Arcadius flew that one and squeezed the balloon a little more at the third-last. Arcadius ranged up the inside there, took a short lead as Tax Ruling retreated and beat Divine Fortune to the corner. From there, the 8-year-old jumped two more fences and won by a length – seeing out the biggest win of his career.
He won by a length over Divine Fortune with Nationbuilder 12 3/4 lengths back in third in a sweep of the first three placing’s by trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Tax Ruling settled for fourth. Owned by Hudson River Farm, Arcadius earned $90,000 and the first Grade I of the spring.
“The further the race went the better he was going – jumping, traveling, doing it,” Crowley said. “He was as good as ever for me. I gave him one little flick going down to the last and then I dropped my stick. I didn’t mean to, but I didn’t need it. He won easy. It wasn’t a very tough race for him.”
“He’s always been a grinder, not terribly fast but he just keeps giving and giving and giving,” Sheppard said. “Divine Fortune had dead aim on him coming for home and couldn’t get by him.”
Arcadius established himself as a stakes horse with a solid 2010 – winning a Grade I at Monmouth Park over eventual champion Slip Away in September and placing in the New York Turf Writers Cup, the A.P. Smithwick and the Iroquois. He went to the sidelines for nearly a year after the Monmouth win and resurfaced with two starts last year – a distant seventh in the Grand National at Far Hills and a decent third behind Tax Ruling and Divine Fortune in the Colonial Cup.
Sheppard left Arcadius in Pennsylvania all winter, moved him to Camden for some final preparations and dialed up a flat spin at the Queen’s Cup two weeks before Nashville. Arcadius was third there and headed to the Iroquois, where he delivered the race of his life. Nobody thought it would be his last.
After pausing for the winner’s circle photo, after getting untacked, while getting doused with water and otherwise attended to, Arcadius died from an aneurysm and subsequent heart attack. An examination revealed a week spot in the horse’s pulmonary artery, which ruptured and caused the episode. He was treated for shock immediately after the incident, given epinephrine to try to restart his heart, but did not respond.
For more on Arcadius, see earlier articles.
– Last summer at Saratoga, Sheppard watched jockey Darren Nagle school Parker’s Project over a few fences in the infield of the Oklahoma training track and smiled. The trainer figured Nagle’s soft touch would agree with the horse, who appeared stuck with a simple maiden win on his form. A day later, Nagle and Parker’s Project upset an optional claimer at 14-1.
Nagle got back aboard for Nasvhille’s $75,000 Marcellus Frost and produced another upset – running down Country Cousin in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Temple Gwathmey winner Via Galilei finished third, a length behind the runner-up. Owned by Hudson River Farm, like Arcadius, Parker’s Project improved to 2-for-2 with Nagle, 1-for-12 with other jockeys.
“He’s a very good horse, I try to interfere with him as little as I can,” Nagle said. “There’s nothing to it. It’s nothing special. He’s a little funny, he just wants to be going all the time but once we jumped off he relaxed.”
Country Cousin set the pace in the 2-miler and was followed closely by All Together in a tight pack of six. Fifth and sixth early, Parker’s Project picked his way through the field and (with a motionless Nagle) loomed as a threat leaving the backside. Parker’s Project went after Country Cousin at the top of the stretch, and withstood a response from that rival between the two fences. The winner fiddled through the last, but lost little momentum while winning his first stakes. Bred by Sheppard in Pennsylvania, Parker’s Project needed eight tries to break his hurdle maiden (at Saratoga Open House in 2010) and fell at Penn National last summer.
Nagle’s only real worry came at the last fence.
“He was jumping too well and I got a bit brave on him at the last and asked him to come up on a stupid stride,” Nagle said. “Luckily, the horse was more clever than I was and jumped it where he was supposed to. He looked after me at that one. It wasn’t bad, he didn’t lose any time, just jumped it and went on.”
– The $50,000 Margaret Currey Henley Stakes for fillies and mares appeared to be another coronation for gallant champion Sweet Shani. Now 12, Mary Ann Hougland’s mare won the race in 2011 and 2010 and faced just four rivals in an attempt at three in a row.
The opposition included half-sisters Quiet Flaine and Ptarmigan, who finished 1-2 for owner Maggie Bryant and trainer Doug Fout as Sweet Shani pulled up in an uncharacteristically dull effort. Quiet Flaine (Jeff Murphy) set the pace, kicked away down the backside and held off Ptarmigan by a length with Opera Heroine third. The winner, a 4-year-old with one career jump win, received 20 pounds from the runner-up, a 6-year-old who won the division championship in 2010. Both are out of Flaine, a jump winner campaigned by Fout’s mother Eve.
Murphy had his choice of the three Fout runners (Well Fashioned finished fourth).
“She’s doing everything right this year, Ptarmigan had missed a year and hadn’t had a race, I didn’t like getting off her but the other filly has been good all spring,” said Murphy, who had to lose seven pounds during the week to tack 135. “I wanted to drop her in, but we went so slowly to the first that it was going to be ridiculous. The way she jumps you don’t want to slow her down too much. She gets to her fences quickly, really accelerates when she gets to the wings and you can use that to your advantage.”
Bred in Pennsylvania by Bryant, the winner is a daughter of Real Quiet whose two jump starts last year resulted in a pull-up and a lost jockey. She returned running in 2011, romping by 15 3/4 lengths in a filly/mare maiden at the Carolina Cup. From there she took on stakes winners in the Henley.
“She ran brilliant (when second) last September at a point-to-point, but I pulled her up in soft ground at Foxfield,” Murphy said. “I fell off her at Montpelier, we got blindsided and I never saw the fence so that wasn’t her fault. She’s been nothing but great this year.”
– Sometimes it pays to be a little bit of an underdog, an afterthought. Lion’s Double went into the $50,000 Mason Houghland Memorial timber stakes as a maiden in eight career starts (flat, hurdles, timber) and the clear third stringer behind Delta Park and Shiny Emblem for trainer Jack Fisher among a field of six.
By the finish, Lion’s Double was tops for Fisher, jockey Willie Dowling and Lauren Woolcott’s Woodslane Farm. The Maryland-bred spent much of the race in the back, but found his best stride late to wear down a stubborn Mecklenburg and win by 1 3/4 lengths. Delata Park finished third in the 3-mile timber stakes.
“It’s nice when you’re the third entry for the barn,” said Dowling. “You can school around in the back and then see what you have. I was the outsider of our three horses so there was no pressure at all and sometimes that works in your favor, the gaps open, the horse jumps well, things go right.”
Before 2012, Lion’s Double struggled everywhere – finishing 11th in his only flat start in 2009, losing five hurdle starts by double digits (if he finished at all). Over timber, he finished far back at Morven Park in 2010. This spring looked different, with a decent third in Foxfield’s maiden timber and then the inspired Houghland effort.
Jumping made a difference.
“I don’t think he missed a fence, he jumped beautifully,” said Dowling. “He’s not been a great horse, he’s been OK. I had a fall on him schooling at home, but he’s been getting better. He jumped brilliant all the way, relaxed in behind – sometimes that helps horses. Mecklenburg got away from us a bit down the back, but my horse kept trying.”
– The Houghland gave Fisher and Dowling a double on the day. A race earlier, they collected a $25,000 maiden hurdle with first-time starter Virsito for Andre Brewster and Sheila Williams. The 6-year-old looked the part in the flesh (a strapping bay) and on paper (by Dynaformer out of a Turkoman mare, four wins on the turf), but came to Fisher on a bit of a lark.
Fisher tried to buy Virsito three years ago, but then trainer Alan Goldberg wasn’t interested and pressed on with a flat career. The Keeneland September yearling sales graduate ($275,000) spent nearly a year away from the races and won a $10,000 claimer last summer at Belmont Park before being pulled up in another start at that level at Laurel in November. All along, Goldberg tried Fisher.
“Take this horse, just take him,” Goldberg said.
“He sent me a contract saying that if the horse ran we would pay him,” Fisher said. “I redid the contract so it said if he won we would pay him, he was free otherwise. He’s a beautiful horse, a nice horse, I tried to buy him as a 3-year-old, made Alan an offer.”
On the race course, Virsito raced up close throughout and won several battles – dispatching early leader Roddickton and later Mr. Universo to win by 4 3/4 lengths as the Fisher-trained En Fuego rallied for second. Mr. Universo stayed for third. A hurdle spin at Middleburg Point-to-Point April 29 put Virsito on course for a good performance at Nashville.
“He was sixth, but the handbrake was on,” Dowling said. “I think he’s going to be pretty decent, he’s very green still. He’s pretty keen and tough at home, so there was no point in trying to take him back, you can’t take that out of him.”
– With Lake Placid, there’s usually an anxious moment or two and apprentice Carol Ann Sloan kept it to one in a runaway triumph in the $35,000 Bright Hour starter allowance hurdle for amateur jockeys. Owned by Irv Naylor and trained by J.W. Delozier, the 2011 novice champion came into the race as a clear favorite among a field of four. The 7-year-old won six times last year and came off a win at Great Meadow while facing Humdinger, Straight To It and Snow Blizzard.
As expected, Lake Placid went right to the front in the 3-mile race and was well clear when he nearly dislodged Sloan at the second fence.
“He loves to be in front, we were going downhill he was starting to run on,” Sloan said. “He’s the sort of horse you can’t fight with, you just have to sit and let him go. We got a bit tight (to the fence) and the horse twisted in the air. I lost a stirrup, came out the side, told myself ‘look, I’m not falling off this horse’ and I somehow got myself back on. After that it was a great trip. No problems.”
None at all. Lake Placid ran and jumped, getting breathers where he needed and won by 8 lengths over Humdinger with Straight To It third. Over from Ireland to work for Delozier in Maryland, Sloan picked up her first win under rules.
“Awesome horse, awesome horse, a great spin to pick up,” said Sloan. “All thanks to Mr. Delozier and Mr. Naylor for giving me a chance on him. I’m delighted. I took a peak around to see where they were and he was still cruising, handfuls in my hands. Bags of ability and a big heart, really big heart.”
Lake Placid improved to 8-for-17 over jumps and won for his sixth jockey.
“I ride him at home, he’s quirky, he has a reputation,” said Sloan. “If he doesn’t want to do something, you’ve kind of got to be nice and coerce him into doing things. He’s allowed to be that way when he runs the way he does.”
– The opener, a $15,000 flat race for amateur jockeys, went to Sheppard’s Bluegrass Summer and the return of jockey Toby Edwards. The winner sat last of four behind a slow pace, then pushed his way between horses at the top of the stretch to defeat graded stakes winner Memorial Maniac by 1 1/2 lengths. Zarb’s Champion was third.
Edwards gets on horses regularly for Sheppard at Camden, but hadn’t ridden a race since 2001. The ride happened by accident.
“How about one for that amateur flat race at Iroquois?” Edwards said to Sheppard one day in the barn.
A few days later, Sheppard told Edwards to look for his tack.
“I had to beg and borrow a few bits and pieces,” said Edwards, 47. “My girths had seen better days, but I got my saddle out and my boots and breeches still fit. It was fun and that’s why I did it.”
Bluegrass Summer came into the race off three flat starts, middling efforts in maiden special weights on the turf at Saratoga and Gulfstream Park.
**Photos by Tod Marks.
For more, see Iroquois gallery on Tod Marks Photography.
**For Results, see National Steeplechase Association.