Holy Bull



Tell Me When He’s Won It!

Ellen Parker

In any horse person’s lifetime there are a handful of horses that touch you in such a way that is impossible to explain.  Friends and acquaintances that like but do not adore animals think you are a bit insane and if they’re right we really don’t care.

For us, Round Table and Dahlia were human.  Almost human were Swale and Mill Reef, Swaps and Seattle Slew.  More recently, horses like A.P. Indy and of course K One King not to mention our beloved California kids Brown Bess and Cutlass Reality all fall into this category.

When Round Table died some of us went with him.  We’ll never love another horse like that.  Just touching Dahlia was enough to bring tears – she moved us like no other.

Then one autumn day in 1993 we were watching Belmont races on television and a colt caught our eye.  You have to understand that we never used to like greys, always preferring plain bays like Round Table.  But this colt had a swagger to his walk – if he’d been a filly he’d have had that ‘walk like a hooker’ Wayne Lukas used to talk about – and when we looked at our Racing Form and saw his name was Holy Bull we had to cheer him on.

Being Catholic, we figured that a horse named Holy Bull had something to do with a Papal Bull, a formal ‘letter’ from the Vatican.  Later on we learned that he was named for the male equivalent of ‘holy cow!’ and thought ourselves a little foolish, but it didn’t change our love for the big, grey horse.

Holy Bull won that day – it was the Belmont Futurity – defeating pro tem champion Dehere and though he did not move on to the Breeders’ Cup, we voted for him for Champion two-year-old.  He didn’t get it, but he was about to embark upon a three-year-old season that would more than make up for not getting a 1993 Eclipse.

I remember him as a juvenile – a dark, gunmetal grey with a lighter face with a dark spot that was shaped something like a heart.  As he aged and the grey and finally white won the color battle the spot would disappear.  But the heart it represented never did.

In April of 1994 Ron and I traveled to Keeneland.  I needed to do some research in the library but our real reason was to see Holy Bull while he trained for the Bluegrass.   We watched him walk around after his workout one morning, saw him paw in his straw until his feed arrived in due course, chatting with his groom and patting him when he lowered his head to take an occasional sip of water.

Of all the impressions he left – and they were legion – he mostly exuded ‘core’ and power.  What good bone he had!  What a marvelous walk, what balance, what substance!  We knew right away this was one of the ones and he almost never let us down.

It was widely speculated that he was ‘gotten to’ before the Derby.  Did we believe it?  Well, maybe…so many horses hate Churchill Downs and run badly there and nowhere else.  Could have been that.  But Jimmy Croll, his owner and trainer didn’t think so, and we give our nod of believability to the man who made him what he was.

But Bull did what needed to be done the rest of the year.  And of course we remember that when he lost that Derby we went out for dinner with a friend and all of us were in a black mood, the general feeling being that ‘it seemed like we didn’t even have a Derby’.  What we remember most of all, however, was that we watched the bloody thing.

What we had been doing ever since he lost the Fountain of Youth when he displaced his palate was hiding in the guest bath whenever he ran.  We just couldn’t watch him race live.  Replays were fine, but watching him live –well, it seemed like bad luck.  So we never watched again.

As his coat grew ever whiter, his courage and ability grew ever bolder.  Race after race we remember watching those replays, often with tears in our eyes, sometimes tears that spilled down our face.  Mr. Croll took him back to a mile to win the Met, moved him onward to 1 1/16 mi. to win the Dwyer, to 1 1/8 mi. to win the Haskell and finally to lay waste the eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Concern in the Travers – a race so courageous that it ranks up there with Slew’s loss to Exceller in the Gold Cup – and that is some compliment.  Plus he proved that it was not the Derby’s 10 furlongs that had cost him his classic.

Bull returned at four and won the Olympic Handicap but suffered a tendon injury in his try against Cigar in the Donn Handicap.  I never did like Cigar after that – people seemed all too ready to jump on his bandwagon, too ready to forget all Bull had done.

I found out about the injury in my first ever search of the web.  I was so scared of using the computer but I had to know if he was all right.  The relief was a tangible thing and my cat, Indy, sat at my feet as I wept knowing that I would see him race no more.

But that wasn’t entirely true.  There was Confessional and Macho Uno and most of all, oh most of all dear beloved Giacomo.  Macho Uno got the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in Mucho Macho Man but only Giacomo made us feel the kind of thrill that Bull had himself.

We were sitting all alone when Giaco won his Derby; Ron was at work.  A client from Washington state had come for the Derby with a group of his friends and we had named Giacomo as our Derby choice.  It was revenge for Bull’s Derby.  When he came flying on the outside to get up in time we didn’t just feel tears down our face, we were beset with huge, wracking sobs.  The phone didn’t stop.  Every friend we had knew how we loved Bull and knew what that Derby meant to us.

So now our Bull is gone and Giaco remains, but he is not appreciated.  Everyone pulled out the stops loving Holy Bull in their columns and blogs and fan comments.  But his Derby winner?  He has stood everywhere but Podunk Plains.  And as we write this he languishes in Oregon not the verdant pastures of Kentucky where he belongs.

To look at Giacomo is to see all the best of Bull – to know that he is able to live on in the form of a classic winner.  Knowing Giacomo makes losing Bull a little easier.  But knowing that Giacomo is not appreciated makes it harder.  It is a bitter conundrum.

So we say good-bye to our beloved grey baby.  We are glad we begged and begged so that we could see him a few years ago.  He had been pensioned and was not shown to anyone, partly because he had the usual melanomas that almost all grey horses have as they age.  They don’t hurt anything but they are not pretty and people who do not know – or won’t accept this – might have thought it was cruel to keep him alive or question their not being removed (which is what really causes a problem, as the mass can spread or become cancerous if it isn’t already – every case is different).

Holy Bull was a horse we loved so much we couldn’t watch him run.  That’s saying a lot.  Only once since he retired has that feeling happened again when we just could not watch American Pharoah’s Belmont live.

As we write this Mucho Macho Man stands a chance of carrying on Holy Bull’s line but he is inbred to Mr. Prospector, something Bull lacked and thus was more versatile.  Mucho Macho Man also presents as a recessive, being the bay son of two grey (dominant) parents.  He is likewise very tall, angular and very much ‘on the leg’.

Holy Bull was a good-sized horse, but he was far more solid looking than Mucho Macho Man.  Macho Uno was not very big when he ran but filled out nicely.  His smaller size came from Blushing Groom his broodmare sire, while Mucho Macho Man gets his big frame from his broodmare sire, Ponche, a son of oversized Two Punch.

It would seem that we are moving farther from the Holy Bull/Rough’n Tumble look here, which is rather sad.  We’d like to breed a Munnings daughter (broodmare sire of Munnings is Holy Bull) to see if the ‘Tartan blood’ returns.  We’ll know soon how things work out for ‘Mucho’ as he has yearlings this season.

In the meantime, horses like Munnings who is off to a wonderful start (and is a really dear horse) and Judy the Beauty will carry on from the bottom side.  When their children run, we’ll go hide in the guest bath and hope for the best while we wait for another grey one to come along with a heart-shaped mark on his face.