Holy Bull was that rare horse who could win one-turn races like the Hutcheson Stakes and the Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile as though sprinting were his life’s calling, and also capture a grueling 1 ¼-mile race like the prestigious Travers Stakes, holding off no less than the eventual winner of that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
He was owned and trained by top New Jersey-based horseman Warren A. “Jimmy” Croll. And how he came to own Holy Bull is a story in itself.
One of Croll’s longtime clients was Rachel Carpenter of Pelican Stables. Croll had entered Holy Bull in a 5 ½--furlong maiden special weight race at Monmouth Park on Aug. 14, 1993. On the day of the race, he received a phone call informing him that Carpenter had passed away that morning. Initially, Croll wanted to scratch Holy Bull from his afternoon engagement, but he was assured that Carpenter would not have wanted that, so run – and win – Holy Bull did.
A few days later, Croll learned that Carpenter’s will called for him to inherit a half dozen or so of Carpenter’s horses, including Holy Bull. With Croll now the official trainer and owner of Holy Bull, momentum for the large gray son of Great Above would build quickly.
He began 1994 with another front-end score, this time in the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and it was time to dream about the classics.
Those dreams seemed to come to a crashing halt following a tiring, sixth-place showing behind Dehere in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. But Croll said that the horse now known as “The Bull” displaced his palate in that race, and he wanted to give him a shot in the Florida Derby.
Given the poor recent effort, the public sent Holy Bull off as the 2.70-to-1 second choice in the Florida Derby and watched as the big gray and Mike Smith sped off to an ultra-convincing 5 ¾-length triumph. No one had ever gotten close to him in the race, and yet the distance between Holy Bull and the rest of the field was never greater than at the finish. Next came a similarly facile 3 ½–length win in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and it was on to Louisville.
By now, Holy Bull was something of America’s Horse. T-shirts, ball caps and other Holy Bull memorabilia seemed as ubiquitous as mint juleps – and umbrellas – on Derby day. The 2.20-to-1 favorite, Holy Bull appeared relatively listless in the post parade and again when the gates flew open. The Bull was never able to wrest his customary early lead on the sloppy Churchill Downs surface, and he finished a badly beaten 12th, 18 ¼ lengths behind the victorious Go for Gin.
Croll then made the most inspired decision of all his time with Holy Bull. He diverted his colt from the Triple Crown trail and pointed for the Met Mile at Belmont. Holy Bull, as a 3-year-old, would get a weight break and only have to carry 112 lbs. But he would be tackling older horses for the first time – and graded-stakes-winning older horses like Cherokee Run and Devil His Due at that.
It was no contest. Holy Bull ran away, reporting home by 5 ½ widening lengths in 1:33.98 and earning a stratospheric Beyer Speed Figure of 122. But instead of keeping his horse at one-turn distances, Croll stretched Holy Bull back out, sending him on to wire-to-wire (what else?) scores in the Dwyer and the Haskell Invitational Stakes.
Next up would be the “Mid-Summer Derby,” the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
It was only a field of five, but it included the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Tabasco Cat. That one’s trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had seen enough of Holy Bull’s come-and-try-to-catch-me-act, so he entered a rabbit named Commanche Trail to gun for the early lead, soften up Holy Bull and set things up for Tabasco Cat.
Lukas’s plan didn’t work. Oh, Commanche Trail did his job just fine, running right alongside Holy Bull through a blistering half-mile in :46.30. But then Holy Bull left him in the dust. The three-quarter-mile fraction, however, was a way-too-fast 1:10.43 and while Holy Bull was now four lengths in front, others were starting to close in.
The most notable come-from-behind runner was not Tabasco Cat, who was not on his game on this day but a deep-closing Richard Small-trainee named Concern. Track announcer Tom Durkin eloquently gave words to what all could see. Holy Bull was still in front but “There is cause for Concern!”
Concern got to within a length of Holy Bull at the eighth pole, and if you could have bet on the race at this point, you would have put every penny you had to your name on Concern. But Holy Bull refused to let the Maryland-based invader by him. The final margin at the finish line was a neck. But one got the impression that had the two gone around the Saratoga oval another time, the result would not have changed. And Concern was no lucky beneficiary of a speed duel. He would go on to win that year’s 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
The Travers was a real gut check for Holy Bull. From there, he went four weeks later to the Woodward Stakes at Belmont. While the Travers was a display of Holy Bull’s stamina and guts, the Woodward was a showcase of his brilliance. This time Holy Bull drew away from a star-studded field and won by five lengths, stopping the teletimer in 1:46.89 for 1 1/8 miles.
“There’s nobody in the world like him,” said jockey Mike Smith after the race. “Honestly, I thought he grew wings at the half-mile pole.”
The race would be Holy Bull’s last of the year. Croll knew he had asked a lot of horse and the horse had put in a full and resolute campaign – one that would later honor Holy Bull with two Eclipse Awards as not just champion 3-year-old male but 1994 Horse of the Year.
Croll put Holy Bull away to prepare for a 4-year-old campaign that would include the early-season Donn Handicap at Gulfstream. He made his 1995 debut with an easy win in the seven-furlong Olympic Handicap at Gulfstream. All systems were go for the Donn, and people came from all over the country to see the reigning Horse of the Year thrill them yet again.
Holy Bull was sent off as the prohibitive 3-to-10 favorite against eight seemingly overmatched foes. Part way down the backstretch, though, Holy Bull was struggling to stay with a front-running opponent. A few strides later, Smith pulled up Holy Bull. The horse had strained ligaments in his left foreleg. The horse he was chasing in the race was Cigar – a horse who had won three in a row (including that day’s Donn) and would go on to win an additional 13 consecutive races after that en route to Horse of the Year titles in 1995 and 1996.
Later that same day, back at the barn, Croll delivered the disappointing news.
“It’s over,” he said. “I said the day he retired would be the saddest day in my life. It happened a lot sooner than I expected.”
Holy Bull was a solidly successful sire during the years that he stood. He even produced a son, Giacomo, who was able to accomplish one of the few things he, himself, couldn’t – win the Kentucky Derby. There was also 2000 2-year-old champion Macho Uno and 2007 Stephen Foster Handicap victor Flashy Bull. And if it can be said that Holy Bull never managed to sire a horse quite as good as he was, it could also be argued that such a feat may well have been impossible.
Note: This story was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.
- Holy Bull was rated #64 in BloodHorse’s List of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century.
- His three losses from 16 career starts all came by 18 ¼ or more lengths.
- Three of his races came on tracks listed as other than fast. He lost two of those races.
- Holy Bull was ridden in his debut at Monmouth by Luis Rivera Jr. Mike Smith rode him in every race after that.
- In his eight victories in 1994, Holy Bull’s average Beyer Speed Figure was 115
- Holy Bull was sent off at less than even money 10 times, including each of his last six starts, which were against top flight competition.