One year after tragedy at Iroquois, Arcadius’ owner to unveil memorial

Friday, May 3, 2013 at 12:35am
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Perhaps this will provide the closure needed for those who raised him, cared for him, trained him and rode him.

Or to offer a grateful thank you to the many who tried to save his life and — maybe — serve as a token of appreciation for racehorses everywhere.

But before the 72nd Iroquois Steeplechase can be run May 11 at Percy Warner Park, the most recent champion must be immortalized.

Friday, May 10, a statue will be erected and dedicated in honor of Arcadius, who died just moments after winning the $150,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois — the last of seven races — last May. Arcadius’ owner, Ed Swyer, commissioned artist Alexa King to sculpt the statue, which will stand near the stables at Percy Warner. King also designed the Barbaro Memorial, which stands outside the gates of Churchill Downs.

“I felt we had to do something to honor him,” Swyer said. “Not only honor him but the love people have for these racehorses. To me, it was just beautiful the way everybody — the vets, the medics, the horse people, the officials — went to his aid, to comfort him and save his life. … Maybe selfishly it will give
me closure.”

A bay gelding bought specifically for jumping initially struggled to leap over log hurdles.

In his last race, though, Arcadius soared for three miles and delivered Swyer, trainer Jonathan Sheppard and jockey Brian Crowley one of the biggest wins of their careers.

“He ran a tremendous race that day,” Sheppard said. “We were all kind of high-fiving and getting our pictures taken and all of a sudden someone said, ‘There is a horse down.’ Sure enough it was him. It was the most incredible thing in my career as a trainer.”

After posing for pictures in the winner’s circle, Arcadius headed toward the cooling area and collapsed. A team of veterinarians, headed by Dr. Monty McInturff of the Tennessee Equine Hospital, rushed to his side, began applying first aid and inserting intravenous fluids. It was a warm day and McInturff had seen horses battle heat stroke before and bounce right back up after receiving treatment.

But Arcadius quickly began to fade and a necropsy later discovered the 8-year-old died from a pulmonary aneurysm.

Ruling it an unforeseen death that couldn’t be stopped, McInturff and Steeplechase chairman Dwight Hall said extra medical teams won’t be added and preparations won’t be altered for this year’s race. As usual, five equine veterinarians will be readily accessible and medical personal from Vanderbilt University Medical Center will tend to the jockeys.

“It was a shocking ending to a great day,” McInturff said. “This could have happened the week before or the week after. It was an anomaly he had that predisposed him to this type of episode. We do a pre-race inspection on all the horses. He was the most beautiful, most perfectly conditioned athlete. There is no way of us determining that this defect was there.”

A year later, Swyer fondly calls Arcadius the greatest champion he ever owned.

When he bought him in 2008, Swyer would have settled for just clearing a hurdle here and there. A Kentucky-bred horse, and son of European racehorse Giant’s Causeway, Arcadius was bought by prominent Irish owner Michael Tabor in 2005 for $500,000. After two years of underachieving, Arcadius was sold twice before he came to the U.S. and landed in the hands of Swyer and Sheppard at Hudson River Farms in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Even Sheppard, a Hall of Fame trainer with more than 40 years of experience, had trouble getting Arcadius to leap over timber. Troubled by the results, the previous owners offered to send Swyer another horse. Five different veterinarians looked at Arcadius to see if maybe he had injured his ankle or leg. Swyer even wondered if the trip over from Ireland had been a traumatic one.

Whatever the reason, both Swyer and Sheppard remained optimistic that Arcadius would come around.

“The jumps he made in Ireland were different from the ones he made there,” Sheppard said. “I just think it took him a little while to get really confident and comfortable with it. He caught on. It took a little bit longer perhaps for him than some because of his somewhat suspicious nature.”

It was 2010 that proved to be a special year. He won twice, one of which was Sheppard’s 1,000th, and placed third at the Iroquois. The finish bred optimism among Swyer and Sheppard because Arcadius was just 6 at the time. Hanging in on one of the more demanding courses in the country, Arcadius impressed.

“We both believed at that point we had a special horse,” Swyer said.

Two years later, Arcadius shocked the field.

With Tax Ruling aiming for the first three-peat in Iroquois history, Arcadius stormed to the end and edged out Divine Fortune. A horse that couldn’t clear the obstacles just years ago, had just won the most prestigious race on the National Steeplechase Association’s spring circuit.

“For me, it was the greatest race I have ever won and the greatest race Arcadius has arguably ever won,” Swyer said. “I have never seen one of my horses jump so beautifully. It was probably the only time when my heart didn’t stop every time he went to a fence, a jump. It just seemed seamless the way he ran. It was amazing.”