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.
The Bull probably could have won the $3 million Classic--he'd defeated the winner, Concern, in the Haskell and the Travers--but neither a huge purse nor the glory of the moment turned Croll's head. And when his great star stood immobile at the five-eighths pole on Black Saturday, the trainer had only one thing on his mind.
"My heart was in my mouth," he said. "When I saw him standing, and no leg was dangling, everything else was secondary. He was all right, and I could deal with the rest of it."
The rest of it included a slew of queries about next year. Because of Smith's quick work, Holy Bull is already walking again, and he will run again. But only for fun. It would simply not be acceptable, Croll said, to bring the great champion back to the races slowed and reduced. Not this horse. Not for all the money in Kentucky.
Put that up your nose, Darryl Strawberry. Take it with you to the so-called bargaining table, Bud Selig. Chew on it as you negotiate with the Dolphins, Neon Deion.
It is not the best of all worlds, but X-rays showed no fracture or bone damage. Holy Bull will now retire to Jonabell Farm in the bluegrass country of Kentucky, there to await a succession of eager prom dates. His stud fee has been set at $25,000--by no means the industry standard, but not bad for a self-made guy hailing from a blue-collar household. The horse who became a symbol of all that racing was and perhaps could be again.
"We all wanted him around for a while longer," said Jimmy Bell, manager of Jonabell, "but I guess carrying the entire racing industry just got to be too heavy."
Horse racing is a sport of generational splendor, of course, and it is fueled by the eternal optimism of backsiders and railbirds alike. So, just one day after The Bull ran his last furlong, a handsome colt named Afternoon Deelites won the San Vicente at Santa Anita by three lengths, thus joining another promising three-year-old, Timber Country, as early favorites for this year's Kentucky Derby.
But no one was quite ready last week to crown a new king. The racing world is still in shock from what has befallen Holy Bull, and the sorrow won't go away anytime soon. Goodbye, old friend. Go safe.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.