‘Holy Cow!’ The Improbable Tale of 1994 Travers Winner Holy Bull


It was Aug. 20, 1994, a Saratoga day to remember. There was a small field for the 125th running of the Travers Stakes that included Holy Bull, the fan favorite and eventual Horse of the Year, and Concern, who would go on to win that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Bull set a blistering pace, running the first three-quarters faster than any Travers winner since Man o’ War in 1920. Concern was way back, trailing the field.

As they moved toward the head of the stretch, up in the announcer’s booth, race caller Tom Durkin set off the alarm bells. “Mike Smith lets the Bull roll” he intoned, “but there is cause for Concern.” The late closer had made up almost 15 lengths and had almost drawn even nearing the wire, when Durkin capped his dramatic call with these words: “Holy Bull, as game as a horse can be. Holy Bull wins! What a hero!”

Holy cow, what a hero indeed!

When Holy Bull died a couple of months ago, it brought back memories of this fabulous horse, his trainer Jimmy Croll, and his owner Rachel Carpenter; an unlikely trio with a heart-warming story that speaks truth to the old adage that “my word is my word.”

In 1994 I took a CBS News Sunday Morning camera crew to Keeneland to do a story on Jimmy Croll and his champion. He was a big, imposing gray colt, more than 16 hands high with a long-striding style and a fierce determination to keep the lead in the stretch, once he took over. As my CBS colleague Heywood Hale Broun used to say, “Bet the gray, you can always find them.” Well this colt was never hard to find.

He won 13 out of 16 lifetime near the lead or on it. Two of his losses were due to injuries (he flipped the palate in his throat and couldn’t breathe in the Fountain of Youth and suffered a career-ending injury in the Donn). A third involved suspicions of chicanery when he finished way back as the Kentucky Derby favorite. Croll maintained right up to his death in 2008 that the Bull had been drugged before that race and that the FBI interviewed him about it. But no further action was taken. That story got more ink after the 2005 Derby when Holy Bull’s son Giacomo won the race as a 50-1 longshot.

But, we digress. The most compelling story surrounding Holy Bull was that of the two people responsible for his success, Warren A. Croll Jr., who had horses as a kid and got his trainer’s license in 1940 at age 20, and Rachel Carpenter, who was an heiress to the A&P supermarket fortune and an avid race-goer. We’ll let Jimmy Croll finish the rest of this tale, with an occasional interruption from this reporter.

“(In the 1950’s) She would come out four or five times a week and sit in the box in front of us,” Croll said. “I had no idea who she was. We got to talking and so forth and (one day) she said she’d like to have a couple of cheap horses for the next winter season at Gulfstream. And I didn’t pay any attention to it. A lot of people tell you they’re going to buy a horse or give you a horse and they don’t mean anything. This went on for a couple of months and her lawyer called me and said she’d like to buy a couple of five thousand dollar horses. And I suggested that instead of buying two for five we’d buy one for ten cause you’d have more of a chance. And so, we did that. And the first time we ran it she happened to be in town. The horse finished third and she was ecstatic!”

And so a partnership was formed that would have an unforeseen ending.

For the next 35 years, racing with Mrs Carpenter’s Pelican Sable silks, yellow with a blue pelican in a scarlet circle, this “odd couple” had some modest successes buying and breeding Thoroughbreds. Croll had other clients too, such as the owners of Belmont winner Bet Twice and the champion sprinter Housebuster. But it was Carpenter that he doted on. “They were almost like my horses,” Croll said. “She supplied the money and the rest was up to me. In fact, I’d buy ‘em and tell her afterwards.”

She was such a silent partner, in fact, that when she changed her will and surprisingly left her entire racing operation to Croll, she never told him. He first learned about the bequest one afternoon in the 1970s when he and his wife ran into a gentleman who lived with Mrs Carpenter. As Croll related, “(the boyfriend) said, ‘Oh, by the way, Rae just re-wrote her will and I guess you guys hope we kick off pretty soon.’ He kind of made a joke out of it. And I said, ‘What do you mean?’

“’Well,’ he said, ‘if anything happens to us these horses are yours.’ And that was never mentioned again and that was at least 20 years before she died. So, I really didn’t plan on it, you know.”

Rachel Carpenter died on Aug. 13, 1993, and the next day Holy Bull would make his 2-year-old debut at Monmouth Park. Two weeks before her death, she had been to Monmouth for the last time. Croll picks up the story: “I showed her all the horses and I showed her Holy Bull. I told her at the time, ‘I think this is a little better than the average horse. I think he might be a little special.’ And of course, I never saw her again. The horse won the first time we started him, but I didn’t know he’d be (this good). I really had mixed emotions. That night I went home and told my wife Bobbie, ‘It just doesn’t seem right we can’t call Rae and tell her that he won.’”

Three days later he got a call from her lawyer. “He said, ‘Jim, you know Rae left all these horses to you. When Holy Bull ran for the first time, you didn’t know it, but he belonged to you.’”

And things just took off from there. The Bull was entered in the Grade I Belmont Futurity, a big money race for 2-year-olds. The day was miserable, cold and wet, but not to Jimmy Croll. “Truthfully, I didn’t know it was raining. The purse was $100,000. The horse belonged to us. It was the first biggie, the beginning of a fairy tale.”

One more question Jimmy before we let you go: How did Rachel Carpenter come up with the name of your Hall of Fame champion? “When this horse came along he was by Great Above and she had a great sense of humor. So, she said, ‘If it’s a filly I’m going to call it Holy Cow. If it’s a colt I’ll call it Holy Bull.’”

Holy cow, Holy Bull, your story was something for the ages.

E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III was the longtime Executive Producer and co-creator of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He won four Eclipse Awards for National Television.

The post ‘Holy Cow!’ The Improbable Tale of 1994 Travers Winner Holy Bull appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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