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Croll Is Still Haunted by Holy Bull’s Derby Downfall

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These should be the happiest of times for Jimmy Croll.

The 77-year-old trainer’s horse of a lifetime, Holy Bull, has turned into a breeding machine. Unlike Cigar, a subsequent horse of the year, Holy Bull has been a standout at stud, getting almost 100% of his mares pregnant at a fee of $25,000 a foal.

Voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1994, the same year that Holy Bull was named horse of the year, Croll has fame, fortune and lifetime security.

So why does he brood?

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“The [Kentucky] Derby,” Croll said. “It will bother me forever why Holy Bull didn’t win that Derby.”

But it is not just that Holy Bull, who went into the 1994 race at Churchill Downs having won seven of eight starts, finished 12th in a field of 14. What also troubles Croll is his belief that foul play was involved.

“They got to my horse,” he said. “I know more than ever that Holy Bull was drugged.”

Croll said the FBI interviewed him several months after the race, but neither the FBI nor the Louisville Police Department would say there is any investigation under way into the race.

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In a long interview, Croll outlined his thesis:

* Holy Bull lost only three races in a 16-race career, and there were valid physical reasons for the two losses besides the Derby;

* Holy Bull won all six races he ran after the Derby until he broke down in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in February of 1995 and was retired;

* Despite around-the-clock security from Churchill Downs, outsiders had access to Holy Bull’s barn;

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* Holy Bull, despite being the beaten favorite, was not tested for drugs after the race;

* One of the outsiders at the barn, Croll says, was involved in a drug investigation in Kentucky about a year and a half after the Derby. The drug in question was halcion, a strong sedative that is sometimes given to heart patients.

“If I had to do it all over, I would have scratched Holy Bull from the Derby,” Croll said. “He was sluggish a couple of days before the race, and he was sluggish on the day of the race. Looking back now, I can see where there was a reason for that.”

Croll said he was interviewed by the FBI in Lexington, Ky., in the fall of 1994.

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“I was at Keeneland with horses, and this guy came to my hotel room,” he said. “He started out by talking about general things, but it became obvious he was there to ask me about the Derby. We talked for about a half-hour, and I told him what I knew.”

A spokesman for the FBI in Kentucky declined comment on whether there is an investigation into the 1994 Derby. A spokesman for the Louisville Police Department could not clarify Croll’s reference to an investigation centered on possession of large quantities of halcion.

“I’ve had heart problems, and I know halcion,” Croll said. “They give it to you to put you to sleep. This guy in Kentucky was called in because he had 4,000 halcion pills without a prescription. They let him go, but he was someone in a position to get to my horse. I’m not going to tell you his name.”

Holy Bull, who was 3-5 to win the Blue Grass at Keeneland three weeks before the Derby, was 8-5 on the Derby’s morning line. Betting never drove his price that low, however. After preliminary betting the day before the Derby, he was 5-2. Early on Derby day, he went up to 4-1, then he steadied at 3-1 most of the day before late betting sent him off at 11-5.

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The first three finishers--Go For Gin, Strodes Creek and Blumin Affair--went off at 9-1, 7-1 and 14-1. A $2 exacta on Go For Gin and Strodes Creek was worth $184.80 and a trifecta on the first three finishers was worth $2,351.40.

“Can you imagine how much money there is to be made if you knew--if you knew for sure--that the favorite was going to run off the board in the Kentucky Derby?” Croll asked.

Instead of being the horse that finally beat the Derby jinx--no favorite has won since 1980--Holy Bull broke half a step slow, was taken out of his speed-favoring style and finished more than 18 lengths behind the winner.

Despite his slow start and a crowded run to the first turn in one of the roughest Derbies, Holy Bull was in good position later. He was fifth going down the backstretch, clear of other horses and only three lengths behind the pace-setting Go For Gin. But by the time the field reached the top of the stretch, Holy Bull was beaten.

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The obvious excuses were offered, some by Croll himself: A workout before the race had left Holy Bull huffing and puffing; the sloppy track favored the mud-loving Go For Gin; the bad start made Holy Bull the tortoise instead of the hare.

“Nothing went right,” jockey Mike Smith said after the race. “We got a bad start, and then we got wiped out breaking and then on the first turn we got wiped out again. It’s the Derby. You’ve got to have the best horse on the day it’s run.”

The first four finishers in the race were tested for drugs afterward, but Holy Bull wasn’t. Testing a beaten favorite in a race is at the discretion of the stewards.

“We just didn’t think we had to test Holy Bull,” said Bernie Hettel, a Churchill Downs steward and executive director of the Kentucky Racing Commission.

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“Looking back now, I guess it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But that whole Derby is a non-issue now, as far as I’m concerned. If Mr. Croll has information that he wants us to review, he could bring it to us and we’ll consider it.”

Croll said that if he ever runs a horse in the Derby again, he will bring his own security. Holy Bull’s only loss before the Derby was in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream when he suffered a displaced palate while running.

After the Derby, Croll skipped the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the other Triple Crown races. Holy Bull, ineligible for the Breeders’ Cup in November, finished the year with five consecutive victories. The only race that was close was the Travers at Saratoga, where he beat Concern by a neck.

In the Woodward at Belmont Park in September, which was Holy Bull’s last start of the year, Go For Gin finished fourth, 10 lengths behind Croll’s colt. Go For Gin never won another race, losing nine after the Derby.

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“Right after the Derby, I had second thoughts about somebody getting to my horse,” Croll said. “That guy with those pills sewed it up. Now I’m sure they got to him.”


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