The love feast for Holy Bull began last Saturday as soon as the fans who were pressed 10 deep around the paddock at Belmont Park caught sight of the big gray colt. They whistled and applauded and chanted, "Bull! Bull! Bull!" Although seven other outstanding horses would go to the gate for the $500,000 Woodward Stakes—the best field for any race at any track this year—the Bull was the people's choice. "They go crazy for him before a race, during a race and after he wins," jockey Mike Smith would say later, "and I go crazy with them."
The mania, reflected in the Bull's status as the 4-5 favorite, would only mount as the colt overwhelmed some of the best horses in the land, powering his way through the Woodward's 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles five lengths ahead of his nearest pursuer, Devil His Due. As the Bull crossed the finish line, Smith punctuated the triumph by pumping his fist in the air, knowing full well that the 3-year-old had silenced most of the skeptics who doubted that he deserved to be 1994's Horse of the Year.
The Bull's catchy name and his distinctive color might have something to do with his popularity, but mostly it's his sheer speed and his front-running style. Even a novice racing fan can identify with a horse who is so fast that he simply takes off and dares anyone to stay with him. True, the Bull failed ignominiously at the Kentucky Derby, finishing 18 lengths behind winner Go for Gin, and he skipped the other two Triple Crown races, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. But as his victories piled up—the Bull had won seven of his nine starts this year, including four Grade I stakes—he began to look more and more like the superstar the sport has been lacking since 1980, when another gray colt, Spectacular Bid, won all nine of his starts on the way to Horse of the Year honors.
The day before the Woodward, trainer Jimmy Croll sat on a bench in the Belmont paddock and talked about how Holy Bull had surprised him in the weeks after his victory in the 1¼-mile Travers Stakes for 3-year-olds on Aug. 20 at Saratoga. In that race the Bull was pressured in the early going by Commanche Trail but still had enough left in the stretch to hold off a late charge by Concern. It was both his most impressive race and his toughest one, leading Croll to fret that his colt might taper off. "But he came out of that race better than he ever was before," Croll said, his baggy eyes opening wide in amazement.
September 25, 1994
Indeed, on the Tuesday before the Woodward, Holy Bull was so much on the muscle that he kicked a hole in a wall at his barn in Monmouth Park, the seaside track in New Jersey that is doll's base. "I was scared to death," Croll said. But the 74-year-old trainer was also as confident as he had ever been heading into a big race, never mind that the Woodward field included Go for Gin and standout older horses such as Devil His Due, Colonial Affair, Bertrando and Tinners Way.
Out of the gate Smith and the Bull conceded the early lead to Bertrando, a speedy 5-year-old from California, settling in just behind him in second place. The early pace-23[2/5] for the quarter, 46[2/5] for the half—was brisk but not suicidal. And when Smith asked Holy Bull to move at the half-mile pole, "It was like he grew wings and started flying," Smith said.
The Bull swept past the tiring Bertrando in the middle of the turn, three furlongs from the finish, and took command of the race. Although Devil His Due, Colonial Affair and Go for Gin made a run at him, the Bull was not really challenged. Never hitting the Bull with his whip but scrubbing on him furiously, Smith brought him home to a victory so convincing that track announcer Tom Durkin was almost beside himself. "Holy Bull is toying with the best horses in training!" Durkin shouted. The Bull's winning margin over Devil His Due could have been anything he wanted. The time was a quick 1:46[4/5]. Said Tony Margotta, trainer of the last-place Brunswick, "I don't think I'll ever see a horse as good as Holy Bull for the rest of my life."
Which, of course, makes it rather unfortunate that the Woodward was Holy Bull's last race of the year. Because of a clerical error, Croll didn't nominate him for the Breeders' Cup, which will be held on Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs. Croll could supplement him to the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic for $360,000. But he won't—not because of the money, he says, but because the colt has been training virtually nonstop for a year and a half, and Croll feels the Bull needs a rest so he can come back strong as a 4-year-old next season. "You could give me a half million dollars tax-free, and I wouldn't run him in the Breeders' Cup," Croll said. "This horse has been good for me, and now it's time for me to be good to him."
Croll also can't be blamed for not wanting to return to Churchill Downs, the scene of the most mysterious race of Holy Bull's career. Sent off as the 2-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, the Bull never came close to the lead. Bypassing the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes—both of which were won by Tabasco Cat—Croll devised an unconventional Horse of the Year campaign that the Bull carried out to perfection. He beat older horses by 5½ lengths in the Metropolitan Handicap on May 30, rolled by 6¾ lengths in the Dwyer on July 3 and galloped by 1¾ in the Haskell on July 31. That set him up perfectly for the Travers.
So how can the Bull be Horse of the Year without winning a Triple Crown race or running in the Breeders' Cup? Easy. He's the only 3-year-old who has beaten the best older horses twice. The Kentucky Derby loss to Go for Gin has to be thrown out because Holy Bull beat that horse twice, in March in the Florida Derby and in the Woodward. And he routed Tabasco Cat so convincingly in the Travers—the Cat finished third, almost 18 lengths behind the Bull—that the star of D. Wayne Lukas's stable will have to win both the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 8 and the Breeders' Cup Classic to revive any hope of being Horse of the Year.
On Saturday evening Croll vanned Holy Bull the 80 miles back to Monmouth. After getting a few days relaxation, the colt will spend the first part of his vacation at Keeneland, near Lexington, Ky., where last spring Croll first noticed that a lot of fans were jumping on the Holy Bull bandwagon. "They have an open stable area at Keeneland, and we had anywhere from 40 to 100 visitors a day," he said. "They came in droves. Now, when we go back, it might be a little hairy. Maybe we'll have to hide him."
No way, Jimmy. The Bull can run, as everybody knows, but he'll never again be able to hide.