A SPORT PULLS UP LAME

At the five-eighths pole, Cigar and the big gray colt, Holy Bull, were dueling for the lead when rider Mike Smith felt a thump, like a car tire going flat. Jerry Bailey, on Cigar, said he heard a loud pop.

"Oh no!" Smitty cried out--and just like that, Holy Bull was finished.
So is horse racing. At least until this beautiful yet most troubled of sports can somehow conjure up another star like the brave son of Great Above and Sharon Brown. As Steve Haskin wrote one day last week in The Daily Racing Form: "The clouds hanging over racing are as gray as Holy Bull's coat."

Even hockey crazies, monster-truck fans and Bill Clinton have heard of the huge, well-muscled colt. In his brilliant career, he won thirteen of sixteen starts, put $2,481,760 in the bank and just last month was named Horse of the Year for 1994. Last May he was yet another failed Kentucky Derby favorite, thwarted by heavy traffic and a sloppy track. But after that he reeled off six straight victories in major races. Overall, he had shown his strength against older horses in the Metropolitan Mile and the Woodward Stakes, his heart in the Travers at Saratoga (where he held off eventual Breeders' Cup Classic winner Concern by a neck) and his domination of three-year-olds in the Florida Derby, which he won by five and three-quarters lengths. He won in the mud, he carried high weight and he prevailed.

Sure, America knows the gray colt's name. But only horsemen and horse players know how much he meant to the game. When The Bull broke down February 11 in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park--strained distal sesamoidean ligaments in his left foreleg, the official report says--the alert Smith quickly stopped him, leaped out of the saddle and held his mount calm and steady until the horse ambulance arrived. On television, Smith looked shaken. After all, he'd been aboard Prairie Bayou when that one broke a leg in the 1993 Belmont Stakes and had to be destroyed.

Smith probably saved Holy Bull's life in the dimming Florida light, on what is being called Black Saturday. But Holy Bull was the horse who was supposed to save racing.

Imagine, if you can, Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, John Elway and Troy Aikman all suffering career-ending injuries on the same Sunday afternoon in November. That's what Holy Bull's absence from the track in his four-year-old season will mean to his sport. Often overwhelmed, if never outclassed, by the other major-league sports and plagued by competition for the gambler's dollar by everything from state lotteries to riverboat blackjack, horse racing has fallen on hard times in recent years. Attendance and betting totals are down at tracks from New York to Florida to California, and the sport has generally failed to produce stars--human or equine--as bright as Barry Bonds or Shaquille O'Neal or Wayne Gretsky.

Among three-year-olds, there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes) since Affirmed beat Alydar in those three scintillating stretch duels back in 1978. No Derby favorite has won the race in seventeen years, and the greatest veteran racehorse of recent years, John Henry, stirred the blood of the regulars but not of casual fans. Ask Americans who the big-deal horse is and I'll give you even money that most of them will still answer: Secretariat. Big Red won the Triple Crown way back in 1973.

Not only that, racing's new showcase day, the seven-race Breeders' Cup, may put $10 million in purses up for grabs every November, but the event has been beleaguered by tragedy. In 1989 three horses, including the wonderful filly Go For Wand, had to be put down at Belmont following accidents. Last November a potential new star, the undefeated two-year-old filly Flanders, won her big race but was hurt in the effort. Her career is over, too.

Meanwhile, NBC's Breeders' Cup ratings could crawl under a saddle blanket. Last year Denver's Channel 4 pre-empted the entire card in favor of a CU football game against lowly Oklahoma State.

This was the year Holy Bull was going to change all that. His racing schedule was to take him from Florida to California (for the Santa Anita Handicap), then on to Maryland, New Jersey and New York, winning new fans everywhere.

He had everything going for him. For one thing, his humble origins appealed directly to the democratic ideal, and when he consistently outran his pedigree, fans dubbed him "the people's horse." Even blinkered NFL fans knew the story about how The Bull's trainer inherited him after owner Rachel Carpenter died--on the very morning of his first race.

For another thing, he always seemed to glory in the attention he got--like, well, like Secretariat. Before his ill-fated start in the Donn, for instance, Holy Bull literally bowed to the 18,963 fans at Gulfstream. Even the day after the awful event, when five dozen reporters crowded around his stall to get a look at the steel cast on his leg, observers said the badly hurt horse grinned and mugged for the cameras, clearly wondering what was up next.

Along with his heart and charisma and his all-out efforts on the track, Holy Bull had something else going for him: trainer Jimmy Croll. For more than half a century, this gentleman has been bringing thoroughbreds to the races, and for more than half a century he has been treating them with respect. Last fall, when Holy Bull needed rest and freshening after an arduous summer campaign, Croll refused to take him to the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs--despite the entreaties of fans and almost everyone in racing.

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