No, er, Bull, Derby favorite is up the creek

May 07, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Holy Bull? Bull.

It isn't going to happen.

Even though Jimmy Croll's gray colt is the fastest horse in the race, he isn't going to win today's Kentucky Derby.

Even though his record is nothing short of remarkable -- eight races, seven wins, five wire-to-wire wins -- he will become the 15th straight Derby favorite to lose.

Pressure will do him in. Pressure and pedigree.

The two P's will take his race and hand it to Strodes Creek, an 8-1 shot who has started only four times and has never won a stakes race.

It isn't that Holy Bull is overrated, as were Arazi, Mister Frisky and several other recent favorites. He is the real deal. "The most impressive horse coming into the Derby in awhile," said Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia.

And it isn't that he is anything less than the dominant horse in the field, creating a devilish dilemma for each of the other 14. Do you get into an early speed duel with him to keep him from getting loose on the lead? Or do you lay back, conserve your energy and let him run away like Spend A Buck and Winning Colors, the Derby's recent wire-to-wire winners?

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Tabasco Cat. "He's got us in a tough spot."

But not too tough. There are just too many talented, fast horses in this Derby -- "the best field since I've been coming here," said Ron McAnally, trainer of Valiant Nature -- for Holy Bull to have his way as easily today as he did in his other races.

It is a rare horse that strolls through the Derby as easily as he strolled through easy prep wins. "It's one thing to dominate the regionals, but another thing altogether to dominate the Final Four," Lukas said. "You're talking about a higher level of competition."

In neither of Holy Bull's wire-to-wire wins in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes was he pressured as he will be pressured today.

Ulises, the Venezuelan horse, the definition of cheap speed, will challenge him for at least a half-mile. Smilin Singin Sam, winner of the Remington Park Derby, is a front-runner. Randy Winick, trainer of Brocco, says he can't afford to let Holy Bull get away on the lead. "Someone is going after him," McAnally said.

And get this: The only other time someone went after him, the only time Holy Bull was genuinely, substantively pressured, in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 19, he stopped running and finished sixth.

Afterward it was determined that he had flipped his palate and couldn't breath, a pretty good reason to stop running. But the guess here is that flipping his palate was a nervous reaction to feeling pressure for the first time. The same kind of pressure he will feel today.

"He's a good horse and Jimmy is a fine trainer, but people say that one way to beat him is to go after him and he chokes up," McAnally said.

The other way to beat him, if you believe in pedigrees, is just to let him run. Because his bloodlines will stop him at the eighth pole if another horse doesn't. His bloodlines are ideal for sprints, but there is nothing in them that suggests he can handle the Derby distance of one and one-quarter miles. His sire, Great Above, won only two stakes, both six-furlong sprints. The only good horses in his otherwise commonplace family tree are sprinters.

After winning the Blue Grass, which is an eighth of a mile shorter than the Derby, Holy Bull stopped running within three jumps. The rest of the horses kept going.

"Either he is real smart and knew where that finish line was," McAnally said, smiling, "or that [1 1/8 miles] was about as far as he wanted to run."

Plenty of horses with cheap pedigrees have won the Derby, of course, but only one Derby winner had a Dosage Index higher than 4.0. (The Dosage Index is a system of predicting speed and endurance based on pedigree.) Holy Bull's figure is 6.0. Dosage has its detractors, but, having missed only once in 119 years, it qualifies as a telling handicapping tool.

Only if luck smiles and Holy Bull goes unchallenged on the lead will he win. It's far more likely that he is pushed, opening up the race to the half-dozen contenders lurking behind him. Brocco, Tabasco Cat, Valiant Nature -- they all could win, based on their prep race performances.

But you can train a horse for a big race without using preps, substituting the right regimen of morning works. That is what Charlie Whittingham has done with Strodes Creek. After finishing third in the Santa Anita Derby, the colt has spent the past month training at Churchill Downs, turning it into a "home" surface. And comfort is the most underrated Derby factor, as the trainers of Snow Chief, Hansel and Pine Bluff -- top horses who bombed here -- can attest.

Whittingham has brought only three other horses to the Derby in the past 33 years, and won twice, with Ferdinand and Sunday Silence. The best trainers generally don't come unless they're going to win, and Whittingham is the best of the best, even at age 81. Count me in.

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