Croll basks in the Eclipse sun

January 28, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Jimmy Croll winces when anyone calls him by his first name, Warren, or, worse yet, his middle name, Arthur.

"Never have liked those names," said thoroughbred owner-trainer Warren A. Croll Jr., recalling that it was his mother who nicknamed him Jimmy.

But last night in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel, before a crowd that included the cream of the thoroughbred racing establishment, the 74-year-old, Pennsylvania-born horseman probably wouldn't have minded if anyone had called him Warren, Arthur or Aloysius, for that matter.

It was Croll's party, on a night on which probably the world's greatest "gift horse," the 4-year-old colt Holy Bull, was named U.S. racing's 1994 Horse of the Year.

The announcement, anticipated for months, was formally made at the annual Eclipse Awards Dinner, which is hosted by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, an organization comprised of owners of the nation's major racetracks, and televised live on ESPN. Actor John Forsythe served as the function's master of ceremonies.

When Croll's longtime patron, Rachel Carpenter, an heir to the A&P supermarket fortune, died in 1993, she willed her horses to Croll, including Holy Bull, who had won his first race on the day Carpenter died.

"It's funny, but I trained for Rae [Carpenter] for 37 years," Croll said. "Well, about 20 years ago, she told me that when she died she was going to leave me the stable. She said it half-jokingly, but I knew she was serious. Then it was never mentioned again until after she was gone."

Holy Bull finished his initial racing season in 1993 as one of the country's better 2-year-olds. But it was during his 3-year-old campaign last year that the colt rose to national prominence and established Croll as "an overnight sensation," although the trainer had formerly campaigned such top horses as Forward Gal, Mr. Prospector, Bet Twice and Housebuster.

Racing exclusively in stakes company, Holy Bull, a large gray horse with a long, fluid stride and calm demeanor, won eight races, including five Grade I victories -- in the Woodward and Travers stakes, the Florida Derby, the Monmouth Invitational and the Metropolitan Mile Handicap.

However, the campaign also had a number of disappointments. It can be said, with accuracy, that when Holy Bull is good, he is very, very good. But when he is bad, he is very, very bad.

After winning his first start of 1994 in the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park, he was sent off as the heavy favorite in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. However, he failed miserably, falling out of contention in the early going and finishing a dismal sixth.

Afterward, Croll explained that Holy Bull had displaced his palate, meaning that a throat impairment had cut off the horse's wind.

But without missing a step, Holy Bull was almost immediately back on track. Croll changed the horse's bit and he followed by scoring impressive victories in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes and was sent into the Kentucky Derby as 3-5 favorite. But the Fountain of Youth had shown that the charismatic colt was not invincible.

Holy Bull was slow leaving the gate at Churchill Downs, was squeezed back going into the first turn and never once made a serious move in the Derby, finishing 12th of 14 starters.

Croll admitted yesterday that he is still mystified by the Derby performance, although he said Holy Bull gave him signs with lackluster Derby workouts that he wasn't up to par.

"But I chose to ignore it and fell victim to Derby fever," Croll said. "But how often do you get the chance to run the favorite in the Kentucky Derby? He was fine in his stall, but on the track, he

had no pep or vigor in the mornings.

"What I did was kid myself into running him. He never made a run in the race at all. Fortunately, four or five days later, he bounced back and has been sharp ever since. I never really have figured out what exactly happened to him in Kentucky."

After winning his next five starts, including defeating Concern in the Travers Stakes and older horses in the Woodward Stakes, Holy Bull was given a rest for the remainder of the year.

He made his return to the races last Sunday, winning the Olympic Handicap at Gulfstream Park, and will make his next start in the Feb. 12 Donn Handicap, also at Gulfstream.

After that, Croll said the horse will race in the Santa Anita Handicap, be given some time off, then reappear in the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park, the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park and the Woodward Stakes at Belmont before ending his career in the Breeders' Cup Classic, also at Belmont.

Croll said that following his final race Holy Bull will beging a stud career at Jonabell Farm near Lexington, Ky.

"Last year was fabulous," Croll added. "But I'd say we're starting out pretty strong this year, too."

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