You don’t come across this notation very often. When Holy Bull made his first start as a 2-year-old on Aug. 14, 1993, Daily Racing Form used the phrase “super speed” to describe his effort.
Here comes Holy Bull. There goes Holy Bull.
A rare mix of raw power, brilliant speed and durability, Holy Bull rose from humble beginnings to become a formidable champion on the racetrack. Known to his legion of fans as “The Bull,” he knew he could put away his opponents, whether it was at 5½ furlongs or the classic distance of 1¼ miles. In his eight victories in 1994, his average Beyer Speed Figure was over 115, which is remarkable for a 3-year-old.
Perhaps the most popular racehorse since Secretariat more than 20 years before, Holy Bull was the “blue collar” hero. Hooking the best thoroughbreds in America, The Bull ran as hard, as fast, and as far as he could race after race.
In the summer of 1994 Holy Bull charged home to win the $500,000 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, scoring his 10th victory in 12 starts. Once more Holy Bull led every step of the way.
Next up: the $725,000 Travers Stakes. The 125th edition of the Midsummer Derby was the defining moment of the colt’s short career and left Holy Bull the undisputed leader in American thoroughbred racing. On a sultry afternoon before a boisterous crowd of 46,395 at Saratoga Race Course, the strapping gray colt with the naturally long strides held off Concern’s spectacular late charge by a neck and silenced his last critics.
It was his first attempt at the 1 1/4-mile distance since his disappointing 12th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby in May, where he was tabbed the favorite. The sensational victory was the most satisfying in the four decade career of his owner-trainer Jimmy Croll, a native of Bryn Mawr, Pa.
The Bull’s racing career started on a tragic note. The morning of his first race his owner/breeder Rachel Carpenter died in her sleep at home in Shelter Island, N.Y., a week after doctors discovered she had lung cancer at age 78. After being convinced by members of her family that "she wouldn't want it any other way," her longtime trainer Warren “Jimmy” Croll sent the 2-year-old carrying her Pelican Stable colors-yellow with a blue pelican in a scarlet circle-- to the gate for the first time at Monmouth Park on August 14, 1993.
Holy Bull blasted out of the gate to conquer his racing debut by 2 ½ lengths, traveling 5 ½ furlongs in a swift 1:03 4/5. Croll celebrated the victory in a subdued manner, and little did he realize that the promising two year-old now was his horse. The news arrived a few weeks later that the will of the A&P grocery chain heiress Carpenter left 19 horses to Croll. He sold 18 of them but held on to the two-year-old Holy Bull.
“I met Rachel about 40 years ago when she had the box next to mine at Gulfstream Park, and I trained for her for 37 years,” Croll noted.
The colt’s pedigree was bullish on speed rather than stamina. Holy Bull’s sire was the sprinter Great Above, whose sons and daughters were predominantly sprinters themselves. His mother, Sharon Brown, was an undistinguished runner, as was her mother, Agathea’s Dawn.
But a closer look reveals Great Above’s mother was champion Ta Wee, who defeated males on several occasions, including the Fall Highweight Handicap under 140 pounds. And Ta Wee’s mother, Aspidistra, was also the dam of the immortal Dr. Fager, whose racing fans consider better than any horse since Man o’ War.
"I was thinking we might get an allowance-type grass horse," said Croll.
Instead, what he got was his finest horse in a Hall of Fame training career that began in 1940. He conditioned 59 stakes winners, the most accomplished of which include Mr. Prospector, Bet Twice and Housebuster, the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter of 1990 and '91.
Holy Bull amazed racing fans and buried rivals with his front-running style. Holy Bull won seven of his initial eight races at five tracks in four states, including the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes. In the Fountain of Youth he snatched his usual early lead but slowed to a near walk in the stretch and finished dead last.
While Croll feared he had been injured, in actuality it turned out that the colt had a problem with his soft palate that was shutting off his supply of oxygen.
Croll made an equipment change, switching to a different bit that he believed would prevent the palate from displacing and keep the colt breathing normally. It worked as Holy Bull cruised to a 5 3/4-length Florida Derby victory followed by a 3 1/2-length score in the Blue Grass.
Holy Bull was the consensus pick in the 120th edition of the Kentucky Derby. It didn’t happen. On a sloppy track Holy Bull broke slowly from post position four and was an uncharacteristic sixth through the first quarter. He was sluggish throughout the race and struggled home a disappointing twelfth, beating just two horses. Croll claimed Holy Bull had been drugged with Halcion.
"They got to my horse," he told the Los Angeles Times. Known for his crusty track presence, Croll said he knew who'd done it but refused to name names, and no blood sample was taken.
Croll elected to skip the Preakness and the Belmont. He got back to his winning ways in the Metropolitan Handicap where the gray colt dazzled a Memorial Day crowd of 26,721 at Belmont Park by leading every step of the way. Then he proceeded to run the table in reeling off stakes in the Dwyer, the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, the Travers at Saratoga and the Woodward at Belmont Park. He triumphed in the Metropolitan and Woodward versus older horses.
Bursting out of the gate in the Travers Stakes Holy Bull hooked speedy Commanche Trail, entered by trainer D. Wayne Lukas as a “rabbit” for stablemate Tabasco Cat. Commanche Trail pinned Croll’s colt along the rail while uncorking a blistering first quarter-mile in 22 4/5. No horse had ever won the 10-furlong Travers after a first quarter that fast.
Holy Bull rolled through six furlongs in 1:10-3/5. Only one horse ever ran the first six furlongs faster and still had enough left to win, the incomparable Man o' War. Holy Bull put Commanche Trail away, while arch rival Preakness and Belmont winner Tabasco Cat, weary of fighting the surface, spit the bit. He finished third by 17 lengths.
With Concern barreling down the deep stretch, the courageous gray found enough heart and stamina-- possessed by all great horses-- to stave off a closing rush and win by a neck. It was Holy Bull’s 11th victory in 13 starts. How good was Concern? He would later capture the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Those at Saratoga that day witnessed a rare example of true grit. As for Croll, he took dead aim at the band of skeptics who had stamped his Bull as just a speed horse, not a racing superstar.
"It showed he's all heart,” Croll said. “They thought he didn't have the breeding to go a mile and a quarter. They said he couldn't go around two turns. They thought he could win only on the lead. They had a rabbit up front and a closing horse chasing him at the end of a mile and a quarter. Well, he did what he had to do. He answered all the questions."
Not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, the colt’s final start of the season was in the Woodward Stakes. Sitting just off of the front runner Holy Bull rolled around the far turn, swept past Bertrando taking the lead and when jockey Mike Smith pushed the “go” button Holy Bull fired, cruising to an impressive five length triumph.
"I think a lot of people saw something they've never seen before," said Smith. "He just came to run for the people today . . . It was just unbelievable. It felt like at the half-mile pole that all of a sudden he started growing wings. He just started flying."
By the end of 1994 The Bull had done it all. Following his debut victory, he won 12 of his next 14 starts, with six of them coming in Grade-1 stakes and three in Grade-2 stakes. In his eight victories that year, his average Beyer Speed Figure was over 115, remarkable for a 3-year-old colt. During his career he defeated a champion older horse, champion sprinter, and champion 2-year-old male, not to mention three classic winners and two Breeders' Cup winners. Holy Bull was crowned champion three year-old male and Horse of the Year of 1994.
After winning the Chicago Handicap in his first outing at age four, Holy Bull was bet down to 3-10 in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Stalking rising superstar Cigar early in the race Holy Bull apparently took a bad step and was pulled up. X-rays revealed a severe strain of the flexor tendon and Croll made the decision to retire his gifted colt. His career earnings stood at $2,481,760.
Holy Bull entered stud at Jonabell Farm near Lexington, then under the ownership of John and Jessica Bell. The farm was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed in 2004. His colts and fillies acquired a reputation for tending to have minds of their own.
From 15 crops of racing age, Holy Bull is the sire of 44 stakes winners including six at the top level. Among his best performers are 2005 Kentucky Derby champion Giacomo, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Macho Uno and Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap winner Flashy Bull.
The great gray horse was retired from stud due to infirmities on July 9. Now 21, he will live in retirement at Darley's Jonabell Farm.
"He was so good, he was not a specialist,” said Jimmy Bell, president of Jonabell. “Short. Grass. Long. Dirt. Pick your best five horses. He could run with any of them. The Bull really was a working man's horse, blue collar. People always had a place for a Holy Bull."