Derby only clunker in Holy Bull's divine year NO CROWN, BUT ROYAL '94

September 21, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

"Every now and then," Chick Lang was saying yesterday, "there comes a horse that's like a great painting. You stand back and watch, and you get chills."

It's been awhile since one came along. There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Four presidents have resided in the White House since the last equine Elvis, Spectacular Bid, caused such a stir and just missed winning the Crown in 1979.

A handful of potential successors has failed to deliver in the past 15 years, lacking either consistency, charisma or sheer talent. This absence of box-office magic has done much damage to racing, a sport gasping for air these days.

Now, there is a gray colt named Holy Bull gracing America's tracks. He is an unlikely star if ever there was one. He was a bust in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 12th. He didn't even run in the Preakness and Belmont. He won't compete in the Breeders' Cup.

"But he is the best racehorse since Spectacular Bid, and I don't think there's much doubt about it," said Lang, the former Pimlico general manager, now a racing consultant and broadcaster. "He is a religious experience."

Whether he is the best since Bid is endlessly debatable; those in the loyal orders of such horses as Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, A.P. Indy and the legendary John Henry will immediately protest. But none of those horses had a season-long run quite as emphatic as Holy Bull's in 1994.

The colt has won eight of 10 starts this year, with all eight wins in graded stakes races, against the toughest competition. Holy Bull hasn't just beaten the best horses, either. He has treated them almost disdainfully most of the time, sprinting to early leads and flat-out running away.

"Speed, speed, speed," Lang said. "It's electrifying to watch. He dares the other horses to come and get him. And they can't."

The shame is that he threw in a clunker in the Kentucky Derby, the one race that can turn a horse into a cover boy. That loss, no matter how much he atones for it during the rest of his career, will forever limit his ability to reach the wider audience that racing needs him to reach.

But he is pressing on, magnificently. Since the Derby, he has won five straight stakes, beating Belmont and Preakness winner Tabasco Cat, 1993 Belmont winner Colonial Affair, Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin and a slew of top older horses, such as Devil His Due, Pistols and Roses and Bertrando.

In the Travers Stakes, he was set up: D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Tabasco Cat, entered a "rabbit" designed to tire the front-running Holy Bull and leave him vulnerable to late charges. Sure enough, Holy Bull took off after the rabbit and the closers crept up on him at the top of the stretch. But Holy Bull refused to let them pass, even though he was used up. His victory, by a neck, was testimony to his heart.

Then, in the Woodward Stakes on Saturday at Belmont, he took on a field of seven horses that had won Grade I stakes. It was no contest. Holy Bull took the lead after a half-mile and pulled away with every stride in the stretch. His victory, by five lengths, was testimony to his native talent.

"I thought he grew wings there in the stretch," said his jockey, Mike Smith.

"It's been a long while since anyone saw a horse run like that," Lang said. "When that race was over, the hair on the back of my neck was standing."

The logical conclusion for such a season would be the Breeders' Cup in November, but Holy Bull wasn't nominated at birth because his bloodlines were mediocre, and a late nomination costs $360,000. Besides, the colt's trainer, Jimmy Croll, said the Woodward would be the end of the colt's year. It's too bad, but Croll, a Hall of Famer, is doing right by a horse who needs rest after 15 months in training.

"Jimmy Croll is the best thing this horse has going for him," Lang said. "Jimmy knows the game. He knows not to get greedy."

The story of Croll and the horse is one of those stories almost too hokey for Hollywood. Croll's old friend and best client, Rachel Carpenter, died and bequeathed Holy Bull and the rest of her stock to Croll. Holy Bull broke his maiden on the day Carpenter died. Croll, a lifelong racetracker, wound up training the horse of his life as a 74-year-old grandfather.

You could start casting the movie right now, except that -- and this is the good news -- the horse is scheduled to keep racing next year. In fact, the Pimlico Special is one race that might make sense for him. That would certainly add to the spring racing season here.

Meanwhile, the only thing left for Holy Bull in 1994 is the voting for Horse of the Year. Some racing observers are withholding judgment, but it should be a slam-dunk. Holy Bull won at sprint distances and classic distances this year. He won running on the lead and coming from behind. He made converts of the racing cognoscenti.

"I don't think I'll see another horse as good for the rest of my life," said Tony Margotta, trainer of Brunswick, the horse who ran last in the Woodward. "He's a champion."

Maybe it was unthinkable a few months ago that racing's biggest award could go to a 3-year-old who didn't hit the board in a Triple Crown race, but there's really no doubt now.

"He's more than just the best horse of the year," Lang said. "He's the best horse of the decade."

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