You're in your 70's, you've trained horses for half a century, and by now you've accepted the idea that you're never going to win the Kentucky Derby. Then one of your clients dies and leaves you her horses, including a big gray colt—gray was her favorite color—of such modest parentage that you hope he'll be good enough just to win a little stake or two in Florida. Amazingly, however, you discover that he's a "freak," racetrack parlance for a horse who far outruns his pedigree, but you have no idea how far he might go until you find yourself standing in the winner's circle after the Blue Grass Stakes, the owner of the favorite for the 120th Kentucky Derby.
This is not wholly bull. It's not even partly bull. It's the improbable but true saga of trainer Jimmy Croll and Holy Bull, the strapping, long-striding colt who earned the Derby favorite's role by galloping to a wire-to-wire victory in last Saturday's 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Blue Grass at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. Holy Bull's margin of victory over Valiant Nature was' 3½ lengths, but it could have been five, 10, you name it. Likewise, the slow winning time of 1:50 could have been faster. Ask jockey Mike Smith, who never even thought of touching Holy Bull with his whip. "I just stay out of the way," Smith said. "The hardest thing to do on him is just to sit still."
And here's the really bad news for Santa Anita Derby winner Brocco, Wood Memorial winner Irgun and any other horse who challenges Holy Bull on May 7 at Churchill Downs: Not even Croll and Smith know how good Holy Bull is, because he hasn't been tested yet. He has won seven of his-eight career starts without really extending himself. In his only loss, a last-place finish in the Feb. 19 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, he suffered a flipped palate—which means that he couldn't breathe properly—a condition that has since been corrected with minor equipment changes to hold his tongue in place. "After the first two steps out of the gate that day. I was in a panic," Smith said. "It just wasn't him. But Mr. Croll took care of that."
Croll, who turned 74 three days before Holy Bull's 5¾-length victory in the-Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 12, took out his trainer's license in 1940. Although he has trained 59 stakes winners, he has run only two horses in the Kentucky Derby—Royal and Regal, who finished eighth to Secretariat in 1973, and Bet Twice, who was second to Alysheba in 1987. "I just didn't want to go unless I had a real chance," Croll says.
That's no bull, either, and the case of Al Hattab proves it. Many observers regarded him as a Kentucky Derby contender in 1969. but Croll believed the Derby's mile and a quarter would be too much for the colt. When Croll told that to Rachel Carpenter, the colt's owner, she simply said, "Don't go."
Croll's prudence was rewarded in a surprising way. Years later Al Hattab sired a filly, Sharon Brown, who became a broodmare despite winning only three of 32 starts. Her fifth foal, born at Bonnie Heath Farm in Florida in 1991, was named Holy Bull, reportedly a tribute to his sire, Great Above, and to New York Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto, whom Carpenter admired and whose trademark expression is "Holy cow!" Had he been born a filly, Holy Bull would have been Holy Cow.
Carpenter, an heiress to the A&P grocery fortune, hired Croll in 1957 and stayed with him until she died last Aug. 14, at 78. "The first horse I trained for her won an allowance race, and you would have thought we had won the Derby," Croll says. Carpenter was an eccentric who would never go to watch one of her horses run in a big weekend race because she would just as soon stay at her Long Island, N.Y., home and shoot pool with the butler or cook or whoever happened to be around. But she sometimes would go to the track on a slow day in midweek. "You wouldn't think she had eight dollars to her name," Croll says. When she and Croll decided to breed Sharon Brown to Great Above, it cost her only $4,000. They merely hoped for a useful sprinter, because only one of the 35 stakes winners Great Above had sired had ever won a stake longer than seven furlongs.
The day Carpenter died Holy Bull won his first start, at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. After another win he caught the racing world's attention by handing the highly regarded Dehere his first loss, in the Belmont Futurity on Sept. 18. De-here's connections blamed the sloppy track and implied that the loss was a fluke. Although Croll didn't agree, he didn't give Holy Bull another crack at Dehere seven weeks later in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, a race that ended up being won by Brocco.
Holy Bull and Dehere did meet again in the Fountain of Youth, which Dehere won before breaking a rear leg in a training accident. "I was very sorry to see what happened to Dehere, but I always thought that Holy Bull was better," Croll said. Holy Bull made his triumphant comeback in the Florida Derby, a race that silenced the skeptics who doubted his ability to go a distance.
When Croll announced after that victory that Holy Bull's final Kentucky Derby prep would be the Blue Grass, several trainers with Derby hopefuls opted to run in the Wood Memorial, which was also last Saturday. But California-based trainer Ron McAnally took a different tack with Valiant Nature, choosing to come to Kentucky to get acclimated early and test his colt against Holy Bull in the process. Since Valiant Nature had defeated the leading California horse, Brocco, once last year and ran well against him in the San Felipe on March 20 (Soul of the Matter won that race, with Brocco second and Valiant Nature third), his presence would provide a means to measure Holy Bull against the California horses.
The day before the Blue Grass, Holy Bull was so fresh that he worked three furlongs in a sizzling 34 seconds, leading to fears that he had compromised his chances. But exercise rider Bobby Perna told the trainer not to worry. "He covers so much ground [with each stride], it's hard to really gauge him," Perna told Croll. "He fools you sometimes." But he didn't fool the sun-splashed Keeneland crowd of 27,931, which sent him off as the 3-5 favorite in the field of seven.
Just before the Blue Grass, Croll watched the simulcast of Irgun's wire-to-wire victory over Go for Gin in the Wood at Aqueduct. "That horse runs just like mine," he said with a smile.
Indeed, breaking from the number 1 post in the Blue Grass, Holy Bull went to the lead, as he always does. Valiant Nature dropped into second but didn't apply pressure until the turn for home, where jockey Laffit Pincay moved the colt to within a length of Holy Bull. But Smith simply asked Holy Bull to pick it up, and whooooosh, he was gone.
"I was very anxious to see how Valiant Nature would run," Croll says. "In California they've been beating each other all the time. Either they're all champions or they're all the same, and right now I'm hoping they're all the same."
Afterward even D. Wayne Lukas, who trains Tabasco Cat, another California horse and runner-up to Brocco in the Santa Anita Derby, seemed ready to amend his prediction that the Kentucky Derby winner "will come from the 818 area code." After watching Chimes Band, his second-stringer, cat Holy Bull's dust in the Blue Grass, Lukas said of Holy Bull, "He's the kind of horse where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you go with him on the lead, you compromise your chances of winning. He's a pain in the ass to all of us."
You're Jimmy Croll, and doesn't that sound sweet? You really can't believe all this is happening at this point in your life, and you just wish that Rachel Carpenter were still around to share it. And you know for sure that you'll be thinking about the lady who loved gray when they load the starting gate at Churchill Downs late on the first Saturday in May.