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BREEDERS' CUP : Skipping Major Event Won't Hurt Holy Bull


LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bobbie Croll, the trainer's wife, was sitting on a trunk in their tack room at Keeneland. She craned her neck to see Holy Bull, who occupied the first stall--the stall of honor--just around the corner.

"Look at him," Jimmy Croll's wife said. "He's looking over here. He knows we're talking about him."

What was being said wouldn't have bothered Holy Bull in the least. Jimmy Croll was reviewing the gray 3-year-old colt's 1994 record--eight victories in 10 starts and purses of $2 million--and concluded Holy Bull should be named horse of the year. The 250 or so Eclipse Awards voters are likely to validate that claim although Holy Bull won't be part of racing's biggest party, the Breeders' Cup, at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

"The only other horse they could give the title to is Paradise Creek," Croll said. "Paradise Creek's a fine horse, and he deserves to be grass champion. But a grass horse doesn't win horse of the year if there's an outstanding horse on dirt, and this is one of those years."

Croll, 74, has been criticized for skipping the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic, which frequently has determined who wins horse of the year.

Holy Bull wasn't nominated when he was a weanling because of a $500 oversight by Croll, who inherited the colt when his breeder, Rachel Carpenter, died last year. Croll would have had to pay a $360,000 supplementary fee to run him Saturday.

"It's not the money, it's the timing," Croll said. "I intend to pay it next year and run him in the Classic. But this year, the timing was all wrong. The horse has been racing for 13 months. He's been in training for 18 months. Whether it's machinery, people or horses, you've got to regroup once in a while."

Holy Bull was even money or less during the five-race winning streak that capped his season, and he would have been odds-on Saturday against Devil His Due and Soul of the Matter, who will be the Classic favorites. Between them, they have won seven of 17 starts this year.

Keeneland, 75 miles east of Churchill Downs, is as close as Holy Bull will get to the Classic. By Saturday, the colt will have gone to south Florida to his winter home at Gulfstream Park.

There are no second thoughts.

"More and more people--and I'm talking about knowledgeable people in racing--are saying that I've done the right thing," Croll said. "We're having a ball with this horse, and we want to continue doing that next year. The sport needs handicap horses, that's been shown by how few good ones are around this year, and we hope to give them one next year."

Holy Bull is scheduled to enter a sprint race at Gulfstream in January, which will be a prep for the Donn Handicap at the Florida track in February. After that, Croll will decide between the $500,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap or the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap.

Even before Croll scrapped the Breeders' Cup, he made another somewhat unpopular decision, yanking Holy Bull from the other Triple Crown races after the 1,150-pound colt finished 12th as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Many trainers would have sought redemption in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

"I don't want this to come off sounding wrong, but if you don't win the Derby, the other Triple Crown races don't mean much," Croll said. "I had Bet Twice (in 1987), and he won the Belmont and was second in the Preakness. We won the $1-million (series bonus), but we were second in the Derby, so the rest of the races didn't mean much to the horse."

Alysheba won three races that year--the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Super Derby--and was voted best 3-year-old colt. Holy Bull didn't lose a race after the Kentucky Derby, twice beating older horses that included Devil His Due. He's a cinch to be the first horse since Slew o' Gold, in 1983, to win the 3-year-old title without winning at least one Triple Crown race.

Croll has replayed Holy Bull's Derby dozens of times in his mind and by watching a replay. The track at Churchill was sloppy, but Croll discards that excuse. He points to two other problems: The colt wasn't particularly sharp in the days leading to the race, and he had a miserable start. A good start is paramount to success for a speedy horse such as Holy Bull.

"The training part is a shady area," Croll said. "At Keeneland (where Holy Bull won the Blue Grass three weeks before the Derby), he was excellent. Ask him for a 0:36 (three-furlong work), and he'd give you 34 and four (fifths). When we got over to Churchill, he wasn't the same. He ate all right, but he didn't seem to have that zing in the mornings."

Instead of expectedly taking the lead in the Derby, Holy Bull was fifth early and never contended.

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