Jimmy Croll minced few words yesterday in describing the condition of his horse, Holy Bull, going into tomorrow's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland (Ky.) Race Course.
"He's at the top of his game," said the 73-year-old trainer, who also owns the horse. "He's doing absolutely great."
That's sad news to rival horsemen who might have hoped the horse was shopworn or tired after his awesome front-running performance a month ago in the Florida Derby. But it's good news for a sport that desperately needs a charismatic headliner to help bring it out of the doldrums. The stunning gray 3-year-old might be just the animal that's in the right place at the right time.
An impressive win in the Blue Grass could make Holy Bull a short-priced favorite in the May 7 Kentucky Derby as was 4-5 favorite Arazi in 1992 or 4-5 favorite Easy Goer in 1989, but perhaps with better results. Arazi finished eighth and Easy Goer was second.
Croll said he thinks the breathing problem that contributed to the horse's lone 24-length defeat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 19 is a thing of the past. "The horse flipped his palate in that race," Croll said. Fixing the problem did not require an operation of any kind, he added.
"This is what happened," Croll said. "There is a membrane that goes over the horse's windpipe. At the time, the horse was still green and he was confused in the race. The other jockeys were hooping and hollering. The horse got excited, tossed his head, and when he did, the membrane clogged his windpipe and shut off his breathing."
Since then, Croll adjusted the horse's equipment, switching from a straight leather bit in the horse's mouth to a plain, broken D-bit.
"That's all he needed to help him," Croll said, and the horse subsequently proved it by winning the Florida Derby by 5 3/4 lengths. As jockey Chris McCarron recently said about Holy Bull's Florida Derby: "He started fast, ran fast in the middle and finished fast."
Holy Bull has impressed observers in Kentucky. Mike Battaglia, oddsmaker at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington where the Blue Grass is run, has made him the 4-5 favorite in the 7-horse field. California invader Valiant Nature is at 9-5 odds, followed by Louisiana Derby winner Kandaly, 5-1; Jim Beam third-place finisher, Chimes Band, 10-1; Bonus Money, 20-1; Mahogany Hall, 20-1; and Warn Me, 30-1.
When post positions were drawn for the 9-furlong race yesterday, Holy Bull drew the rail. Almost automatically that means jockey Mike Smith and Holy Bull will go immediately for the lead and try to take the race in the same breathtaking fashion that shocked their rivals in Florida.
"I don't really care if he goes to the lead or not," Croll said. "It doesn't make any difference with this horse. We have never rushed him to make the lead. He's just faster than the other horses."
Initially the Blue Grass looked like a one-horse race for Holy Bull until California trainer Ron McAnally pulled his Hollywood Futurity winner, Valiant Nature, out of the lineup for the Santa Anita
Derby last week and headed for Kentucky. In the Futurity last December, Valiant Nature had beaten Brocco, the eventual Santa Anita Derby winner.
The McAnally-trained colt, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr., drew the six-hole in the Blue Grass. The trainer said he hopes Pincay can take the speedy West Coast runner off the pace. He has trained him to start slow and finish strong in his workouts, which means he should be stalking Holy Bull the first part of tomorrow's race.
Croll said that Valiant Nature's presence "should give us an idea of what the other 3-year-olds on the West Coast are like. They are either four champions or four ordinary horses. They take turns beating each other," he said. Croll was referring to Brocco; Santa Anita Derby runner-up Tabasco Cat; Valiant Nature; and Soul Of The Matter, who also skipped the Santa Anita race.
Croll wasn't overly impressed with the outcome of the Santa Anita Derby. "It was alright," he said. "They ran the last half mile in 48 2/5 [seconds]." That time was about a second slower than Holy Bull's winning Florida Derby effort.
Maryjean Wall, turf writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, said the trainers of the other horses in the Blue Grass are quite aware of Holy Bull's dominance. "Their only hope is that if their horses can't beat him, then the track will," Wall said.
The Keeneland surface is deeper and more tiring than the Gulfstream Park strip where Holy Bull won the Florida Derby. "Since Keeneland opened last week," Wall said, "only one horse has won wire-to-wire. The track favors a come-from-behind horse. If Holy Bull overcomes that bias tomorrow, then he really is a good horse."