When the Bull ruled racing

Holy Bull, Mike Smith up, winning the 1994 Travers Stakes (NYRA)

Remembering beloved Hall of Famer Holy Bull the week of his namesake Kentucky Derby prep race at Gulfstream Park

By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director

Few horses have captured the hearts of racing fans the way Holy Bull did. When he succumbed to the infirmities of old age in 2017 at Jonabell Farm in Kentucky, the sport lost a popular champion in the 26-year-old son of Great Above.

“Horses like Holy Bull just don’t come along that often. I’ve always said, he wasn’t a specialist — short, grass, long, or dirt. Just a fantastic racehorse,” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA, whose family owned Jonabell prior to Sheikh Mohammed’s purchase in 2001. “You can’t mention his name without using such words as ‘fighter,’ ‘determination,’ and ‘guts.’”

Holy Bull was retired to Jonabell in 1995 after a remarkable career that led to his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2007. There were, however, doubters of Holy Bull’s greatness in the summer of 1994 even though he had won six graded stakes that year prior to arriving at Saratoga for the 125th running of the Travers. One of his naysayers was a notable figure, future Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of rival Tabasco Cat.

Holy Bull was coming into the Travers riding a three-race win streak — comprised of the Metropolitan Handicap, Dwyer Stakes, and Haskell Invitational — by a combined 14 lengths. Lukas, however, was skeptical of the big gray colt who was owned and trained by Jimmy Croll.

“Look at Holy Bull’s record under a microscope,” Lukas said. “Who was second when he won the Dwyer? Nobody can tell you.”

Lukas entered Commanche Trail in the Travers as a rabbit in hopes he would hook Holy Bull into a speed duel to the benefit of the late-running Tabasco Cat, winner of the Preakness and Belmont. Commanche Trail did what was expected by delivering sizzling fractions of :22.83 for a quarter-mile and :46.35 for the half. Holy Bull stayed close to the pacesetter under Mike Smith and had a daunting task on his plate when he took the lead with a half-mile to go. At this point, the rabbit was cooked, and the Midsummer Derby was a two-horse race between Holy Bull and a determined Concern, the Arkansas Derby winner.

Withstanding a furious stretch drive from Concern, who had run in the money in eight consecutive stakes races, Holy Bull showed he had the heart to match his talent. Refusing to let Concern by, Holy Bull hit the wire a neck in front to win a contentious Travers before an electric Spa crowd of 46,395. Tabasco Cat, meanwhile, finished 17 lengths back in third.

“He did it the hard way. 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.”

The Travers victory was the 10th in 12 starts for Holy Bull, as well as his fifth Grade 1. Croll was the longtime trainer for Rachel Carpenter, whose Pelican Stables bred Holy Bull in Florida. When Carpenter died in 1993, she bequeathed seven horses to Croll, including the yet-to-be-raced Holy Bull. At the time, Croll was best known as the trainer of champion Forward Gal, the brilliant sprinter Mr. Prospector, and Bet Twice, who trounced Alysheba by 14 lengths in the 1987 Belmont Stakes to deny him the Triple Crown.

Following the Travers, Holy Bull defeated standouts Devil His Due, Colonial Affair, and Go for Gin in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont to close out his sophomore campaign with five straight wins. Holy Bull won the Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year and Champion 3-Year-Old Male. At the end of the year, Holy Bull was assigned 130 pounds on the Daily Racing Form Free Handicap — the highest for a 3-year-old in 15 years — and was given a front-page headline of “Bullmania Sweeps the Nation.”

Holy Bull began his 4-year-old season with his sixth consecutive victory, winning the Olympic Handicap at Gulfstream by 2½ lengths. He looked primed for a brilliant season but was pulled up with a bowed tendon in his next start, the Donn Handicap. The decision was made to retire the champion with a career record of 13-0-0 from 16 starts and earnings of $2,481,760.

“If he wasn’t Holy Bull, I’d bring him back to the races next year,” Croll said at the time. “I’m sorry we couldn’t finish the year with him. He would have gone out in a blaze of glory. He has courage and class. I’m going to miss him. Everybody’s going to miss him.”

Retired to stud duty at Jonabell, Holy Bull sired six Grade 1 winners, including 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, and champion juvenile Macho Uno.

“The whole story of Holy Bull, Mrs. Carpenter, and Jimmy Croll, jockey Mike Smith … it was just a sensational ride,” Bell said. “No doubt, at the time, Holy Bull was an icon for our family farm.”


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