A Personal Tribute to Holy Bull

Holy Bull grazing in April 2015. Photo by Terri Keith.

I’m sure every thoroughbred racing fan has their all-time favorite horse.

For me, it’s Holy Bull, the 1994 Horse of the Year.

I still have my Holy Bull T-shirt and my pack of Holy Bull trading cards.

I remember first hearing about “The Bull” while listening to a radio show devoted to horse racing while on the long drive from Southern California to Las Vegas in 1994.

“Over-rated” is simply what I remember hearing about Holy Bull. I was intrigued and made sure I was at a sports book in Las Vegas to see the simulcast of his race.

Over-rated he was not, and I was hooked on him.

I was a novice to horse racing at that point, and he drew me in and heightened my interest in the sport. It didn’t hurt that he was a gorgeous dark gray.

Over and over again, he won, with the only blips in an otherwise brilliant 3-year-old campaign being his losses in the Fountain of Youth and the Kentucky Derby.

Even though it was his closest winning margin, I was probably most impressed by his victory by a neck over the late-running Concern in the Travers. They were both so gutsy and I liked Concern, too, but you can bet I was cheering for my favorite gray as the two of them battled down the stretch.

In my mind, he essentially had the Eclipse Award sewn up for Horse of the Year by the time he beat older rivals including Devil His Due and 1993 Belmont winner Colonial Affair in the Woodward at Belmont Park in September 1994, and he didn’t run again that year.

Holy Bull looked to be primed for another superstar campaign in 1995, when he easily won his first start of the year in the Olympic Handicap at Gulfstream Park. He was expected to travel to Southern California’s Santa Anita Park for the Big Cap that year, and I was finally going to get the chance to see him in the flesh.

Then came the Donn Handicap and the devastating news that Holy Bull had been pulled up by jockey Mike Smith, who had ridden him in all but his first start.

I was sorry that I would never get to see him race, but thankful that his injury was not life-threatening and that I had witnessed, albeit from afar, the career of such a spectacular horse.

Even now, I’m impressed when I reflect on his career record of 13 wins in 16 starts, including the Florida Derby, Blue Grass and the Metropolitan Handicap, and earnings of just under $2.5 million in the days long before the huge purses of the Dubai World Cup and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational.

Holy Bull would go on to become a stallion at Jonabell in Kentucky, and I eagerly monitored the progress of his offspring.

One of Holy Bull’s colts, Macho Uno, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2000, narrowly defeating Point Given, who went on to win the Preakness and Belmont the following year.

Holy Bull’s son, Giacomo, managed to win one of the few races Holy Bull didn’t as a 3-year-old – the Kentucky Derby – and I remember jumping up and celebrating as Mike Smith rode Giacomo to victory at odds of just over 50-1 in 2005.

And I’ve also grown to become a fan of those who have Holy Bull back a little bit further in their lineage.

Despite hobbling with a foot I had broken two days earlier, I was there when Holy Bull’s grandson, Mucho Macho Man, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in 2013. I was back the next year to watch Judy the Beauty, the daughter of the Holy Bull mare Holy Blitz, win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, and then watched on TV as Private Zone – a son of Macho Uno – finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2015.

And I’m eagerly awaiting the next race of the gorgeous Caravaggio, an Aidan O’Brien trainee who happens to be out of the Holy Bull mare Mekko Hotke.

I was fortunate enough to see Holy Bull – a 2001 Hall of Fame inductee — a few times in Kentucky over the years while he was a stallion and then after he was pensioned in 2012.

On my last trip to Darley at Jonabell just over two years ago, the guide leading the tour of the farm asked everyone which horses they wanted to see. There were many wonderful horses, including Kentucky Derby winners Animal Kingdom and Street Sense. But the horse I asked to see was my old favorite, who was by then much a lighter shade of gray than his racetrack days of the mid-1990s.

Every time I saw Holy Bull, I understood it might be the last time given his age and my somewhat infrequent visits to Kentucky. But I always hoped there would be a next time.

You can imagine my disappointment when I looked at Twitter on Thursday and saw a photo of Holy Bull with the caption “Rest in Peace.” I frantically scrolled through my Twitter feed to see if it was a mistake. Sadly it wasn’t.

I found the official word from Darley, which announced that he had “succumbed to the infirmities of old age” this week at the age of 26.

Godolphin USA President Jimmy Bell said in the statement, “If you were putting together your fantasy stable for the last 25 years, you’d have to have Holy Bull in your top five.”

Well, there’s no question that Holy Bull’s in my top five.

Although I’ve seen many wonderful racehorses, including a Triple Crown winner, in the last two decades, Holy Bull is still my favorite. I think he will always be.

On one of my future trips to Kentucky I hope to stop by his grave to say one final goodbye to the horse that helped to make me a horse racing fan.