Crolls' road to Derby spotlight wholly amazing

May 05, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- "Do you find all this amazing?" someone asked Bobbie Croll yesterday morning amid the swarm of reporters and oglers in front of Holy Bull's barn.

A grandmother for years, a lifelong racetracker, she smiled and shook her head slowly from side to side, as if to say: You have no idea.

True enough.

We weren't there when her husband, Jimmy Croll, took out his trainer's license 54 years ago and started his career at the old track at Havre de Grace, training a horse he had bought for $50.

We weren't there when the newlywed Crolls rented a room in a rooming house near Pimlico, bathroom down the hall. "Not a great place," Bobbie said. "We hit a lot of them along the way, especially when we didn't have many good horses. But we survived."

We weren't there to witness many of the countless booms and busts that have composed the Crolls' racing odyssey.

"People have no idea," Bobbie said. "They have no idea what you have to go through to get to something like this."

To the emergence of Holy Bull, the gray horse Croll owns and trains, as the favorite in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

"I think it finally hit me yesterday," Bobbie said. "My son said it had hit him the day before. It's all just so crazy. Like a dream. Unreal."

After a half-century of training, a half-century down on his knees in the mud before dawn, a half-century of winning just about every big race except the one that matters most, Croll suddenly finds himself holding the Derby goods at 74 years old, when it's supposedly too late.

Unreal? Yes, that's the right word. "It's a fairy tale," Jimmy Croll said. "You can't call it anything else."

There are hundreds of reporters around his barn this week, always a horde kneeling at his feet, writing down his every word, searching for meaning in his every raised eyebrow. But they're all come-latelys. They're all cheating, guilty of jumping in at the end of the story, after the hard part.

"I remember the winter we went to Maryland instead of Florida," Bobbie said, "and it kept snowing and the water buckets froze, and we didn't have any good horses at all. We watched a horse we'd had win the Widener Handicap on television. Jimmy sat there and said, 'What am I doing here?' "

Then there was the time he bought a filly for $6,500 and watched it win three races in a stroll, the third a stakes. Then she broke a knee.

"There were plenty of tough times," Jimmy said. "This sport beats you down."

But the Crolls, racing lifers, kept coming back. They got by on claimers when they had to, raised two kids, squeezed out a life, splitting time between New Jersey and Florida. Then Jimmy got hooked up with Rachel Carpenter, an heir to the A&P supermarket fortune, who sent Croll solid horses year after year. From there, he got hooked up with more top owners and such champions as Parka, Forward Gal, Housebuster and Bet Twice, the latter a Belmont winner.

No one ever doubted that he was as sharp as any horseman anywhere. When an owner sent him to a sale one year to come home with a yearling with stallion potential, he came home with Mr. Prospector, who only became the dominant American sire of the past 20 years.

The gray Carpenter-bred colt named Holy Bull didn't figure to amount to much. He had a nothing pedigree. His half-brother sold for $16,000 at Timonium. "[Holy Bull] probably would have sold for $25,000," Jimmy said.

On the morning of the colt's first race, Jimmy got a call in his barn at Monmouth Park. Carpenter had died. Jimmy considered scratching but went ahead and ran. Holy Bull won by 2 1/2 lengths.

"The hardest part was not being able to call her that night to tell her," Jimmy said.

Two days later, Carpenter's attorney called with the news that she

had left all of her racing stock, including Holy Bull, to Jimmy. The rest of the story has been in the papers. Holy Bull has won six of seven starts since breaking his maiden, sweeping the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes by a combined nine lengths.

"He's a genetic freak," Jimmy said. "He is well-balanced, has a fabulous [running] action. That's not supposed to be."

The trainers and owners of the 14 other Derby starters are angling for ways to beat him, but many won't be sorry if he wins.

"What's wrong with Jimmy Croll winning the Derby?" asked Louie Roussel, trainer of Kandaly. "When you put up with what he's put up with for 50 years, you deserve to win the Derby."

He waited 54 years for this moment, had long ago stopped expecting it to happen. And now everything is coming together. On top of Holy Bull's emergence, yesterday he was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

Acknowledging the news, he started to talk and had to stop. "I'm going to cry . . ." he said.

And someone had the audacity to ask Bobbie if she found it all amazing.

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