Holy Bull peered out his stall at Keeneland at the steady stream of visitors from around the country, many with their children, who had come to trainer Jimmy Croll’s barn to get a glimpse at racing’s newest sensation and hot favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
As he cocked his ears and posed for photos, he was greeted with a series of oohs and aahs.
“He’s a real ham and loves the cameras,” Croll said. “Whenever he sees a photographer, he’ll stop and pose. He’s getting smarter by the day.”
One woman from Iowa asked a question to no one in particular, hoping someone in earshot could provide an answer: “What do people look for when they breed Thoroughbreds? What is the perfect racehorse?”
Holy Bull’s groom, Bob Coffey, pointed to the gray colt looking out his stall. “Right there,” he said. “There is the perfect racehorse.”
No one could argue with him. Holy Bull had just dazzled everyone with a spectacular 5 3/4-length victory in 1:47 2/5 in the Florida Derby, earning a lofty 115 Beyer Speed Figure, and then followed that up by coasting home to an easy 3 1/2-length score in the Blue Grass Stakes, earning a 113 Beyer figure.
The Florida Derby was Holy Bull’s breakout performance, coming off a dismal effort in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, in which he displaced his palate, and was gasping for air by the half-mile pole, according to jockey Mike Smith. That, of course, brought out the critics, claiming Holy Bull was nothing more than a sprinter. He had won the seven-furlong Futurity Stakes, upsetting heavy favorite Dehere in the slop, and had to come again in the stretch after being passed by the speedy Patton to win the seven-panel Hutcheson Stakes by three-quarters of a length in 1:21 1/5. But in his only two-turn race he did romp by 7 1/2 lengths in the In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Series.
So, it was important that Holy Bull silence the doubters in the Florida Derby. He proceeded to run his opponents off their feet with a :46 flat half and 1:10 three-quarters
“The most exciting thing I ever saw was him alone on the lead Saturday,” Croll said. “After the race, he cooled out in 15 minutes and was screaming for his dinner. He cleaned out every oat and the following morning was as bright as the sun.”
Croll was expecting a huge effort from Holy Bull when the colt tuned up for the Florida Derby by working five furlongs in :59 1/5, coming home his final quarter in a sensational in :22 1/5.
“I’ve timed over 25,000 horses in my life and I’ve never seen a horse do that,” Croll said.
Holy Bull had bounced out of his Fountain of Youth debacle by working seven furlongs in 1:23 flat, coming home his final eighth in :11 1/5, galloping out a mile in 1:36 2/5.
“During his gallops, he goes in his eighths in :14, while most horses will go in :16 or :17,” Croll said. “When he was young, we didn’t have any babies who could keep up with him, so we had to gallop him by himself.”
We all know by now that Holy Bull flopped in the slop in the Kentucky Derby and was never in the race. To the day he died, Croll insisted that someone had gotten to the horse, citing the fact that he had acted unusually lethargic leading up to and including Derby Day. He’d never done that before or since.
When Holy Bull came back and annihilated a top-class field of older horses in the Met Mile, earning a spectacular 122 Beyer figure, it began a run of six straight brilliant victories not seen in many years.
I’m sure many people who have read this column over the years are familiar with the story of Holy Bull and Croll, but with the Florida Derby coming up, and the favorite, Cairo Prince, being out of a mare sired by Holy Bull, I will tell it again for those who are not familiar with it and those who only know parts of it. It’s another one of those racing stories you can’t make up and never get tired of hearing.
First off, we must begin with Holy Bull’s impact on the Sport of Kings. To his multitude of fans he was known simply as “The Bull,” and in 1994, Thoroughbred racing was the proverbial china shop. The Bull ran roughshod over any foe who dared to stand in his path. By the end of the year he had created more havoc than any bovine since Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.
Holy Bull metaphors, like the feeble one above, became commonplace in newspapers and trade journals and he was a headline writer’s dream. The images people had of the horse were depicted on gray T-shirts designed by Daily Racing Form caricaturist Peb, which showed a raging, snorting bull with a paradoxical halo above his head. His name conjured up heavenly images, but on the racetrack he was hell on wheels. By early 1995, in addition to the T-shirts, there were Holy Bull caps and trading cards, an influx of fan mail, and several public appearances. People came from as far away as Alaska to see him.
The story of Holy Bull began some 20 years before he was even born. Trainer Warren A. “Jimmy” Croll, a veteran on the New Jersey circuit, had made only one journey on the Kentucky Derby trail, with A.I. “Butch” Savin's Royal and Regal in 1973. Two years earlier, Savin had sent Croll to the Keeneland July yearling sale with the specific purpose of finding a horse who had the potential to become a top-class stallion. After checking out a number of yearlings, Croll called Savin and told him he had found the horse he was looking for. Determined to buy him, Croll went to $220,000 for the son of Raise a Native out of Gold Digger, whom Savin named Mr. Prospector.
Brilliantly fast on the racetrack, Mr. Prospector was sent to Florida to stand following his retirement, but a short time later was moved to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, where he became arguably the most influential stallion in the history of American breeding.
Around the time of the colt’s purchase as a yearling, Croll, who was stabled in Florida for the winter, was approached by Everett House, the live-in companion of Croll’s longtime client Rachel Carpenter. House informed Croll that Carpenter had re-written her will.
“Jimmy, I want you to know that if anything happens to the two of us, all the horses belong to you,” House said.
It was something trainers never hear and owners never do. A dumbfounded Croll always thought of the spunky Mrs. Carpenter as the type of person who would live forever, so he never gave it a second thought.
Some 20 years passed. In 1992, Croll’s son and assistant, Bill, went down to Bonnie Heath Farm in Ocala, Fla., to look at the yearlings. Croll wasn’t able to get down there that year, so he sent Bill instead. Bill watched the yearlings parade and gallop through the stretch, one of whom was a colt that his father owned, so the farm pushed him in a big way. They had videotaped all the gallops, and when they told Bill his father’s horse was a pretty nice colt, he replied, “You're out of your mind. What about the gray horse? He's the best one you’ve got. He's a standout."
House died in the early ‘90s, which deeply affected Carpenter. Each year, she would make it a point to go to Monmouth Park to visit with friends and family and see her horses. In 1993, she went to Croll’s barn on the last day of her visit. One of the horses he showed her was a homebred colt by Great Above out of the Al Hattab mare Sharon Brown, whom she had named Holy Bull. This was the same colt who had impressed Bill the year before.
“You know, this gray colt could be something special," Croll told her.
Carpenter had been ill when she visited Croll's barn that summer in ‘93, and two weeks later, on Aug. 14, she died in her sleep. Croll received the news later that morning from House's daughter, Even Tehan, who was Carpenter's secretary. Ironically, Croll had entered Holy Bull for his career debut that afternoon. He assured Tehan he would scratch the horse.
“Oh no, don't scratch him,” she said. “She wouldn't want you to do that.”
So, Croll ran Holy Bull, who won easily by 2 1/2 lengths in a sharp 1:03 4/5. Three days later, Croll received a call from Carpenter's lawyer, who said, “Jimmy, I just want to tell you that when that horse won the other day he belonged to you.” As did six other horses owned by Carpenter.
At first Croll had no idea what he was talking about, but then he remembered what House had told him 20 years earlier. Croll had felt that over that long a period of time Carpenter could have easily changed her will numerous times. But she hadn’t, so Croll, at age 74, became the owner of one of the most exciting young prospects he’d ever trained. This was someone who had bought his first horse in 1940 for $50.
Croll, of course, had no way of knowing the gift he had just unwrapped was actually Aladdin's lamp in the form of a big, battleship gray colt. By the end of the following year, the genie had granted Croll two wishes: Holy Bull was named Horse of the Year and Croll was the latest inductee into the Hall of Fame. Seven years later, a third wish was granted when Holy Bull joined his trainer in racing's pantheon of greats. But the genie wasn’t finished. In 2005, Croll watched Holy Bull’s son, Giacomo, do what his sire was unable to – win the Kentucky Derby. Now he has a chance to become the sire and broodmare sire of a Kentucky Derby winner.
Holy Bull’s career was extraordinary. Following his debut victory, he won 12 of his next 14 starts, with six of them coming in grade I stakes and three in grade II stakes. His only two losses came in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, in which he displaced his palate and lost his air, as mentioned earlier, and the Kentucky Derby, when he turned in an uncharacteristically lifeless performance that Croll always said he could explain, but “can't talk about.” Years later he began talking about it more and more. Until the day he died in 2008 at age 88, Croll was convinced that Holy Bull had been drugged. He wasn’t the only one who was suspicious. Many at the time commented how listless he seemed leading up to the race.
By the end of 1994, Holy Bull had done it all. He demonstrated extraordinary brilliance against older horses, easily winning the Met Mile and Woodward Stakes in blistering times. He annihilated 3-year-olds in the Blue Grass Stakes, Florida Derby, and Dwyer Stakes. He displayed the courage of a champion in the Travers Stakes, digging in and holding off the furious late charge of eventual Breeders' Cup Classic winner Concern, despite the presence of a rabbit to soften him up and a brutal three-quarters in 1:10 2/5. He showed the will to win by coming again to defeat the swift Patton in the Hutcheson Stakes. And he demonstrated his ability to concede weight to top-class horses by defeating graded stakes winners Meadow Flight and Concern in the Haskell Invitational Handicap, giving them eight pounds.
Of the horses he defeated in 1994, Devil His Due, Colonial Affair, Cherokee Run, Concern, Go for Gin, and Tinners Way all came back to win grade I stakes, while Tabasco Cat, Bertrando, and Meadow Flight won grade II stakes in their next start. In all, Holy Bull defeated the winners of the grade I Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont (twice), Breeders' Cup Classic, Breeders' Cup Sprint, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, Woodward, Pacific Classic (twice), and Suburban. Not many horses have shown the versatility to defeat a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, and in the same year.
In his eight victories that year, his average Beyer Speed Figure was over 115, which is remarkable for a 3-year-old. Here was a Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male who, during his career, defeated a champion older horse, champion sprinter, and champion 2-year-old male, not to mention three classic winners and two Breeders' Cup winners.
Although the Travers was Holy Bull's narrowest margin of victory, it was the race that stamped his true greatness. No Travers winner other than Man o' War had run three-quarters faster than Holy Bull, as he had to put away Tabasco Cat's rabbit, Commanche Trail, after a half in :46 1/5 and the three-quarters in 1:10 2/5. When Concern, 22 lengths off the pace early, charged up almost on even terms with Holy Bull in the stretch, even Croll was convinced Holy Bull was beaten. Concern was a true mile and a quarter horse who would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year. But the tenacious Bull dug in and refused to let Concern pass him, winning by a neck. To show how brutal the pace was, Tabasco Cat, racing in third, five lengths back, finished 17 lengths behind Concern in third.
Concern's trainer Dick Small said afterward, "That was a race for the ages. I had to get out of there quick or I would have broken into tears. My horse was fresh and I really thought we had it. For Holy Bull to dig in and fight back like that after all he had to do early in the race showed that he's really something special."
What made Holy Bull such a fan favorite was that he ran as hard, as fast, and as far as he could race after race. He looked the best horses in America in the eye and left them for dead. The way he rated in the Woodward before blowing away a star-studded field by five lengths in 1:46 4/5 was nothing short of spectacular. Just try to imagine racecaller Tom Durkin's voice as he bellowed in a tone of disbelief, "Holy Bull winning like a champion...with devastating ease! Holy Bull toying with the best horses in training."
His rider, Mike Smith, put it best when he said after the race, “I'm in awe of him. I thought he grew wings at the quarter pole."
Everyone expected Holy Bull to point for the Breeders' Cup, but Croll could see some wear and tear after a long, hard year. He knew that making the Breeders' Cup would force him to miss the entire Gulfstream meet.
"I took a little heat for the decision to put him away for the year," Croll said. "But I race every year in Florida, and I felt I owed it to them to run the horse there."
Holy Bull was assigned 130 pounds on the Daily Racing Form Free Handicap, the first 3-year-old in 15 years to be weighted that high. He arrived in Florida a national hero. A headline in the Form read: “Bullmania Sweeps the Nation."
Croll brought Holy Bull back in the seven-furlong Olympic Handicap at Gulfstream and he easily defeated the classy grade I-winning sprinter Birdonthewire. Then came the Donn Handicap and a battle with an upstart named Cigar, winner of three straight, including the NYRA Mile (now the Cigar Mile). One can only speculate what would have happened had Holy Bull not pulled up on the backstretch with a career-ending injury just as he was moving up to challenge Cigar for the lead.
Racing’s Gray Goliath was retired to Jonabell Farm (now Darley at Jonabell) in Lexington, Ky. For Croll, he had received the greatest gift of all – literally. It’s been 18 years and people who saw him race still talk about the colt with reverence. They still utter superlatives when they recall his heroic feats. And if you’ve never seen this brilliant horse in action, be assured none of it is bull.