Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reminder: Even the Winners Die

A Daily Sentimental Reminder: Even the Winners Die

Published: May 14, 2012

NASHVILLE — Even the winners can die. The steeplechase horse Arcadius — a thoroughbred like those in this weekend’s Preakness — won a race that rewards the hardy, the brave, the stout. Three miles. Eighteen hurdles. He galloped, he jumped, he stalked, he  flew home.
Jockey Brian Crowley dropped his whip after the last fence and still the horse won with his ears pricked, holding on by a length in the Grade I $150,000 Iroquois Steeplechase here on Saturday. Arcadius galloped out, pulled up, slowed to a walk and returned with Crowley aboard. At the winner’s circle, the photographers waited. So did an owner, a trainer, a groom, a crowd of 25,000.
The trophies, the plaudits were his. He had won, triumphed, beaten one of the best to try the Iroquois in the two-time winner Tax Ruling. In his best opportunity, Arcadius came through. An 8-year-old gelding, he breathed hard as he walked back to applause.
“Well done, jock,” a fan said to Crowley.
The jockey nodded and pointed to his horse. “Not me, all him,” the gesture said.
And it was. Arcadius seized the day, winning with the biggest, best effort of his life. The humans lined up, the horse was led in to the winner’s circle. Catching his breath now, he stood for the brief ceremony — a sweaty, dirty, hot, victorious athlete. It was as if he knew he had won. Arcadius stared regally to the distance, ears at attention, and everyone else paused, soaking in the victory. The cameras buzzed. Crowley jumped down, unbuckled the elastic girths, removed the leather saddle, breastplate, black and red cloth with the white 3 on it. The jockey folded it all up on his arm, patted his horse on the back, one more reward for the effort.
Two minutes later, Arcadius was dead — steps from the finish line he had crossed with so much power, so much life.
It was quick, shocking, certainly eerie. After walking from that winner’s circle celebration, while getting the usual after-race hosing and dousing with water, Arcadius stepped awkwardly to his right, raised his head, stiffened his front legs and dropped to the ground on his left side. Before he fell, his right eye went blank — flashing life, death, pain, something. Humans sprang to action — with more water, ice, medicine. It had looked like a heat stroke, even on a day when temperatures barely reached 70 under a gray sky. Horses do that: they overheat, they get medical attention, they cool off, they get up and walk away — tired, but alive.
Not this time.

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