03/12/2003 12:00AM

Croll a man well worth honoring


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The winner's circle was the site of an unusual deputation last Sunday as veteran horsemen, jockeys, officials, and others enjoying a long association with racing gathered to pay tribute to one of their own.

They chose an ideal location. Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Croll has cut back on the busy schedule he maintained for more than half a century. His son, Bill, saddles the stable's horses now but Croll's immense fund of expertise is always available and is a distinct asset. Celebrating his 83rd birthday, Croll is still very much the winner he has been throughout his career.

He first gained national attention by claiming Parka for $10,000. A gelded son of Epsom Derby winner Arctic Prince owned by the Pelican Stable of heiress Rachel Carpenter, Parka made 83 of his 93 starts, most of them on the grass, under Croll's supervision. Parka improved with age and became America's champion turf horse in 1965 as a 7-year-old under unusual circumstances.

"He won the Bougainvillea Handicap at Hialeah for the second time," Croll recalled, "but he fractured a sesamoid in the Hialeah Turf Cup. All the others recommended surgery but Dr. Joe Burch suggested trying a pressure bandage. It did the job. He was out for 5 1/2 months, had a couple of prep races, and then won the Kelly Olympic Handicap. That earned him a spot in the big United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City. He won it in record time beating a very good horse, Hill Rise."

Parka was entered in the Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct but was being asked to concede considerable weight to nine opponents. Croll was dubious but Walter Blum, his rider, urged him to run. Parka stood a long, hard drive to win his 93rd start and was retired.

Alysheba beat Bet Twice by less than a length in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and edged him again in a thrilling Preakness. A large crowd turned out for the Belmont Stakes in anticipation of a coronation, but Bet Twice's trainer Croll had other ideas.

"I thought we moved too late in both races," he said. "I got together with Craig Perret before the Belmont and suggested he make his move at the half-mile pole. Bet Twice won by 14 lengths. He was a pretty good horse. He won the Haskell, the Pimlico Special, and some other important races but he didn't make it as a stud and people tend to forget him."

Croll will never forget Holy Bull, nor the circumstances that led to his selection as Horse of the Year in 1994. The swift gray colt by Great Above was owned and bred by Carpenter, who had horses with Croll for some 30 years. Holy Bull came out as a 2-year-old of 1993, trained well that summer, and was ready to make his first start at Monmouth Park Aug. 14. That morning Croll was notified that Mrs. Carpenter had died in her sleep. The trainer said he would scratch the horse but was instructed to run him. Leading all the way, Holy Bull won by more than two lengths. The family attorney phoned the next day to tell Croll the colt had won for him. Mrs. Carpenter had willed him all her horses.

Undefeated in four starts at 2, Holy Bull had many doubters as a classic prospect.

He was regarded as a speed horse with dubious qualifications as a stayer. He won Gulfstream's Hutcheson, then was upset in the Fountain of Youth when he swallowed his tongue. He made amends with a brilliant Florida Derby, winning by almost six lengths and stepping the nine furlongs in 1:47.40.

He confirmed that form in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes with a decisive, front-running performance that earned him the favorite's role in the Kentucky Derby. His run for the roses, however, was hugely disappointing. He was never a factor at any time, in sharp contrast to previous outings.

"That's why his victory in the Met Mile meant so much to me," Croll said. "He ran a mile in 1:33 4/5, won by more than five lengths, and beat some hard-hitting older horses."

Holy Bull, gaining in popularity with every appearance, galloped to victory in the Dwyer and Haskell, and answered a question about stamina with his triumph at Saratoga in the 1 1/4-mile Travers. He won the Woodward easily and Croll announced that his horse was through for the season.

"He was sound throughout his career," the trainer said. "But his ankles were beginning to show signs of wear and tear. He was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, and if we had gone in that direction it would have meant missing the winter racing in Florida. He was a Florida-bred and I didn't want to do that."

Holy Bull's ankles responded to treatment and he returned to competition with a sharp tally in the seven-furlong Olympic Handicap. He had trained forwardly for the important Donn Handicap, and appeared to be launching his move on the backstretch when he suddenly pulled up, lame in the left front. He had pulled his suspensories and was all through, while the promising handicap star Cigar went on to an easy score.

"We were lucky to save him," Croll said, "and are very grateful for that. Cigar's trainer, Billy Mott, was one of the first to stop by the barn after the injury. It is something we've always appreciated. Racing attracts wonderful people. Miss Carpenter was one of them. I've been a very lucky fellow to be involved."