06/03/2014 1:07PM

Catching up with Holy Bull

Barbara Livingston
Horse of the Year Holy Bull is a pensioned stallion at Darley's Jonabell Farm in Lexington.

The brilliant Holy Bull was sent off as the favorite in all but two of his starts – and, almost two decades after last setting foot on a racetrack, that adoring public hasn’t forgotten him.

“He still gets a lot of visitors,” Charlie Boden, head of sales for Darley America, said of the 1994 Horse of the Year, who resides at Darley’s Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., as a pensioner. “It’s great fun to see people come by here. He was such an awesome racehorse. He certainly captured the hearts of the American public.”

Holy Bull was bred in Florida by Rachel Carpenter of Pelican Stable, who died in 1993, leaving several horses to her trainer, Jimmy Croll. He sold all but one – Holy Bull, who went on to win all four of his starts as a juvenile by a combined 17 1/2 lengths, including the Futurity at Belmont.

The son of Great Above captured three of his first four starts in the spring of 1994, including open-lengths victories in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes, to stamp himself as the heavy favorite for the Kentucky Derby. However, on a sloppy track, Holy Bull was never a factor early and finished an uncharacteristically dull 12th behind Go for Gin, who had been fourth in the Florida Derby.

Rather than moving on to the Preakness, Holy Bull sought his retribution against older rivals a few weeks later in the prestigious Met Mile, facing a salty field that included eventual sprint champion Cherokee Run, handicap stalwart Devil His Due, and 1993 Belmont winner Colonial Affair. Holy Bull rolled by 5 1/2 lengths over Cherokee Run, making him one of just six 3-year-olds to win the Met Mile in the last half-century.

After easily winning the Dwyer and Haskell Invitational stakes, Holy Bull faced a season-defining challenge against Preakness and Belmont winner Tabasco Cat in the Travers Stakes. Tabasco Cat’s stablemate Commanche Trail provided a challenge on the front end, dragging Holy Bull through opening splits of 22.83 and 46.35 seconds before retreating. Holy Bull held off a rallying Concern to win by a neck, with Tabasco Cat 17 lengths back in third.

“Concern actually got by him by about a head,” jockey Mike Smith told Daily Racing Form upon Holy Bull’s Hall of Fame induction in 2001. “So, there it was, the first time I was going to hit him. I didn’t know what he’d do. I pulled my stick through and asked him a couple times left-handed, and he just laid himself down and got back in front. That’s when I knew we could go around again and Concern would never get by him.”

Holy Bull got one final matchup with Go for Gin, romping over Devil His Due and Colonial Affair in the Woodward, with the Derby winner fourth and champion Bertrando fifth. Despite bypassing the Breeders’ Cup – where Concern won the Classic – Holy Bull was honored as Horse of the Year as well as champion 3-year-old male. He remains the most recent horse to unseat a dual classic winner for the latter award.

After a facile victory in the Olympic Handicap to start 1995, Holy Bull was favored in the Donn Handicap over rising star Cigar, who had won three straight. But the anticipated battle never came to fruition, as Holy Bull pulled up on the backstretch with a career-ending tendon injury.

“I feel sure myself that that day, he would have beaten Cigar,” Croll told the New York Times. “Holy Bull was right at his peak. But it was one of those things. He made a misstep.”

Holy Bull entered stud at the Bell family’s Jonabell Farm in 1996 and has remained there his entire career, even after the facility was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum’s Darley operation in 2001. Although he never sired a runner matching his brilliance, Holy Bull has been represented by several notable winners, led by 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo – who, appropriately enough, carried Smith to victory.

Another son, Macho Uno, won the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to earn an Eclipse Award. He is now fashioning a successful stud career in his own right, led by 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man.

“He’s got a very useful son out there,” Boden said. “The legend goes on in that regard.”

Holy Bull’s other top runners include Grade 1 winners Flashy Bull, Confessional, Bishop Court Hill, and Pohave.

Holy Bull also has quietly emerged as a very useful broodmare sire. This year alone, his representatives in that category include Grade 1 winner Judy the Beauty, Grade 2 winner Cairo Prince, and Grade 3 winner Happy My Way, a rising sprint star. Other standouts out of his daughters include Grade 2 winners Munnings and Going Ballistic.

“I think horses like him that are an outcross certainly become ones that a lot of smart breeders anticipate as being useful in that regard,” Boden said. “[Broodmare sire Al Hattab] is kind of hard to find. He was such a good outcross for Northern Dancer, Raise a Native, the ones that are so prevalent ... It’s a fairly rare strain these days. He’s an opportunity. That’s why fillies are going to be a little more valuable.”

Holy Bull, a 2001 Hall of Fame inductee, was pensioned in 2012 due to declining fertility and the infirmities of old age. According to Jockey Club statistics, eight live foals were reported as the sire’s final crop.

Holy Bull, 23, still resides in familiar quarters in a Darley at Jonabell stallion barn, stabled across the aisle from two fellow pensioners – old rival Cherokee Run, 24, and Quiet American, 28. With the exception of visits to the breeding shed, Boden said Holy Bull lives “the same life he did” as an active stallion, being turned out and groomed daily and spending time in a massage blanket, “which he loves.”

“The most important thing, from racehorses right up through their next career, change is not really what they do well,” Boden said. “You try to keep things as regular as you can.”

Another thing that has never changed for Holy Bull is the accolades.

“He does have a lot of fans,” Boden said. “He is a star here. He’s a celebrity on the farm.”