07/29/2001 11:00PM

Only half of great team enters Hall


DEL MAR, Calif. - It was the morning of Aug. 30, 1993, and Jimmy Croll was on the phone with the racing office at Belmont Park, trying to get a rider for the 2-year-old he had entered in a nonwinners-other-than for the Sept. 2 program. His first choice, Craig Perret, went to End Sweep for Billy Badgett and Greentree Farm. Croll and his wife, Bobbie, were open to suggestions.

"Looks like Smith is open," Croll was told.

"Mike Smith," Croll repeated. Bobbie Croll perked up.

"He won the Jersey Derby for us on Greek Costume," she said, harking back two years. Her husband required no further urging.

"Put Smith on him," Croll said.

It was as simple as that. A small opening, a pleasant memory, and presto! Mike Smith had tumbled unknowingly into a powerful current of history. The 2-year-old colt was Holy Bull, fresh from his maiden win. Smith was 28 and on the verge of his first national title. Over the next 17 months, through soaring highs and a few desperate lows, Smith never left Holy Bull's saddle.

Next Monday in Saratoga Springs, Holy Bull will enter the racing Hall of Fame. Normally, Smith would be on the scene at Saratoga, sitting in the front row when Holy Bull's name is called and extolling his virtues to anyone who asked.

But Smith is in California now, trying to re-establish his credentials as a potential Hall of Famer himself. And since he is off to a decent start at Del Mar, with six winners through the first 11 days, this is no time for a holiday. Smith had to be content with a half hour's worth of reminiscence after workouts Monday morning. He didn't need much prompting.

"A lot of times you'll see a real good 2-year-old turn 3 and never grow," Smith began. "But man, he grew into a powerhouse. When they legged me up on him the first time at 3, his neck was like twice the size it had been."

To Smith's delight, the bigger, stronger version of Holy Bull had lost none of the grace and mechanical precision he had displayed in winning the Futurity at Belmont and the colt division of the In Reality Stakes at Calder.

"He was so well balanced," Smith said. "He would literally float along with his ears up, smooth as silk. Then, when another horse came to him, he would leave them like they were nothing. Mach Two, just like that."

The colt had an attitude to match. Smith knew the rest of the world was in trouble whenever Holy Bull hit the paddock, dragging two handlers like rag dolls and playing to the crowd.

"He was amazing," Smith said. "And he knew he was amazing."

Even the great ones have pockmarks on their records. Holy Bull raced 16 times and won 13. Two of his three losses have ready explanations, when he bled internally in the 1994 Fountain of Youth and was eased, and when he "popped a tendon like a shotgun," according to Smith's vivid memory, running against Cigar in the 1995 Donn Handicap.

Then there was the 1994 Derby, which remains a mystery even to Smith.

"He was quiet going to the post," Smith recalled. "I tried to convince myself it was a good thing, that he was handling it so well. But then I was smooching to him to get him to warm up. He just stood there in the gate when it opened and got cremated. After that he never picked up the bit at all."

From the depths of the Derby, Holy Bull rose to win the Metropolitan Mile, the Dwyer, and the Haskell Invitational. But it was not until he won the Travers at 1 1/4 miles that the racing public began to take him seriously again. Holy Bull dispensed with the distance, a deep track, a pace-making rabbit, and the strong finish of Concern.

"Concern actually got by him, by about a head," Smith said. "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."

There are some jockeys who will name the last good horse as the best horse they have ever ridden. There are many more who never get a chance to wonder. Then there is a self-effacing guy like Mike Smith, who will tell you that he was never on a better one than Holy Bull, and you never even asked him the question.

"It was hard to do anything wrong on a horse like him," Smith said. "The best thing I could do was just not get in his way. To tell you the truth, I don't even know if people know who rode Holy Bull."

Maybe so. But whoever did rode him right into the Hall of Fame.