Thinking about Arcadius, a year later

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The last time I was here, I watched a horse die.

It still gives me a weird chill when I think about it. Arcadius ran, jumped, won the 2012 Iroquois Steeplechase and then dropped dead on the track. In front of everyone, and about 10 steps from where I was standing.

I did my job that day. Watched. Remembered. Interviewed a veterinarian, a jockey, a trainer. Shook hands with an anguished groom. Somehow, I caught a flight back home. Then I wrote, mostly for me but also for the horse. I wanted to do him justice. I wanted it to matter. I hammered the keys on an Apple MacBook for every minute of the “You are now permitted to use electronic devices” period back to Baltimore. Two days later, the article wound up on the front page of the New York Times sports section.

I remember feeling proud of the work, but a little embarrassed and troubled. Still am. Arcadius died, I just wrote about it.

I’m back in Nashville, Tenn. for the Iroquois – the richest racing day on the spring steeplechase circuit. The race meet gives away $415,000 Saturday, but I’m not the only one who will be thinking about the plain bay gelding who gave his all on the course at Percy Warner Park a year go.

Owner Ed Swyer, artist Alexa King and the Iroquois committee unveiled a memorial sculpture of the horse Friday night. It’s a half-sized bronze set in the stable area and meant to be a tribute to the people who rose to action while attempting to save Arcadius. Of course, the statue also honors a gallant horse. King created the magical action sculpture of Barbaro at Churchill Downs, and hit a similar vein with Arcadius. The bronze shows him walking on the course, looking over his shoulder and stepping across himself in front. Jockey Brian Crowley leans over to adjust his stirrup, Arcadius looks ready to run, eager for the race to start, but totally at ease. There’s a bounce to it, a life.

Not quite a star, the horse needed a signature win to jump into the championship picture. He got it, rallying to the front leaving the backside and devouring the long, uphill run to the finish. He won by a length and looked on the verge of a big year for the Hall of Fame trainer.

And then Arcadius died, felled by an aneurysm a veterinarian said could have hit at any time and couldn’t have been prevented.

That’s the thing with mortal beings, they die. Sometimes it happens quickly, but it always happens. Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper did several horse safety articles in today’s edition. Sports writer Mike Organ called me to comment for one, after talking to a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal spokesperson. I took a deep breath.

I said something to the effect of: “You know, if racing were shut down it’s not as if Thoroughbred horses would be released into the wild. They’re not deer. If we didn’t have racing, we wouldn’t have horses.”

Organ didn’t use that quote (probably a good thing), but that’s a point I try to make when the topic of horse welfare arises. The North American Thoroughbred racing/breeding industry produces roughly 25,000 foals each year. Oh sure, people like horses and might have some Thoroughbreds around for trail riding, fox hunting (unless we shut that down, too), horse shows, whatever, but the number won’t be anywhere near 25,000. Thoroughbreds are created to race. It’s what they do. Banning racing won’t help the horses.

Can racing be safer? Sure. Can the sport do more to protect horses? Yes. Can drug cheats and others who abuse the system be dealt with more harshly? You bet. Would more research into racing surfaces, shoes, feeding, surgery, diet, pretty much any variable help. Surely. Do we need uniform medication rules between states? Definitely.

But no effort will ever eliminate the risk in horse racing. They’re mammals. They breathe, run, jump, sweat, eat, drink, think, cut, bleed, ache, wrench, strain, sprain, break, die. They also live.

Horse racing gets its fair share criticism for not doing right by the horses, and we’ve all read the investigative pieces in the Times and elsewhere. Cheaters hurt the game. So do medication rules that change from state to state. But nobody is comfortable with equine injury. Nobody in the game sloughs it off. Though I hate the phrase, I’ve said it: “It’s part of the game.” I always try to keep talking though, and finish the sentence with “but nobody’s comfortable with it.”

The people in racing are here for the horses. Grooms, trainers, veterinarians, riders, jockeys work long hours, risk life and limb, pour energy into a sometimes fruitless effort. They coddle, cajole, care. They also know what’s at stake. They know the horses can get hurt, and keep working anyway. Don’t ask why. It would take too many words to explain.

Crowley, retired as a jockey and now working at WinStar Farm in Kentucky, came back for Friday night’s ceremony. Dr. Monty McInturff, who heard the final heartbeats of Arcadius last year, stood in the rain, took a photo of the statue and thought about it all. Sheppard stood in the back with his wife Cathy as Swyer made a speech. Across the way in the barn, the seven starters in the 2013 Iroquois ate their dinners.

The best part of King’s statue in Nashville is the setting. The statue stands between two stately trees on the site of an old loading ramp. Elevated by a stone wall and a higher stone platform, the statue makes you look, invites you in. In his speech Friday night, Swyer said he’d someday find an opportunity to sit on that wall, in the shadow of that statue, under those trees, sip a cup of coffee, remember his horse and think about life.

Me too.