What a thoroughbred the late Rachel Carpenter bred when she mated stallion Great Above with her mare, Sharon Brown, and came up with Holy Bull, likely favorite to win the 120th Kentucky Derby in three weeks.
Holy Bull put his own exclamation point behind his name on Saturday, when he cruised to a 3 1/2 -length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course and established himself as one of the most exciting Derby prospects since a horse of a similar color, the gray Spectacular Bid, came along in 1979.
Carpenter, an heiress to the A&P; fortune who lived in Long Island, N.Y., idolized the New York Yankees. She relished the calls of Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto, whose signature exclamation is "Holy cow!"
So when Carpenter wanted to name one of her young male horses after her beloved Yankees and Rizzuto, she changed "Cow" to "Bull" and came up with a horse's name that might gain some household familiarity in the coming weeks.
Carpenter died last August, the same day Holy Bull won his first start at Monmouth Park. She bequeathed the colt to her longtime trainer, Jimmy Croll, who said he feels Carpenter happily is watching the horse's career "from above."
Indeed, there is something seemingly celestial about the horse who is outrunning his modest pedigree and whose trademark, front-running style and color help him stand out from the rest of the 3-year-old crop.
On Saturday, Holy Bull demolished California invader Valiant Nature, one of the West Coast's top horses. The West's best also include Santa Anita Derby winner Brocco, Santa Anita Derby runners-up Tabasco Cat and Strodes Creek, and Soul Of The Matter, the horse owned by pop music composer Burt Bacharach who upset Brocco and Valiant Nature last month in the San Felipe Stakes.
Brocco and Tabasco Cat are at Churchill Downs preparing for the May 7 Derby. Soul Of The Matter leaves Santa Anita Park tomorrow and ships to Keeneland. On Sunday, he competes in the Lexington Stakes, and if he runs well, moves on to Louisville for the Derby.
Talk at Keeneland yesterday centered on ways rival trainers might beat Holy Bull.
"Where's Fly'n J. Bryan when you need him?" quipped Ron McAnally, trainer of Valiant Nature. He was referring to the sprinter who set rapid early fractions in the Santa Anita Derby and then quit and finished last. The theory is that such a horse could run early with Holy Bull, set a tiring pace and wear him out enough to set the race up for a closer.
In his past two races, the Florida Derby and Saturday's Blue Grass, Holy Bull ran uncontested on the lead and had plenty of energy left for the stretch run.
Sending out a "rabbit" could be one strategic move to tap his energy reserves. But employing a Fly'n J. Bryan might not be necessary. Other front-runners, such as Wood Memorial winner Irgun, are bound to run on or near the pace in the Derby.
But Croll has said Holy Bull is not necessarily a one-dimensional front-runner. He says the horse gets to the front in his races so soon simply because he's faster than the other horses. But once he gets in front, he relaxes, and is focused and in control. Croll said jockey Mike Smith simply could rate Holy Bull until a rabbit or another front-running type runs out of gas, and then he could pass them.
But just keeping up with Holy Bull might be a problem for other horses. For a big horse, he seems to have very fluid movement, and his stride appears quite long.
Of course, it is too soon to build a monument to Holy Bull. The Kentucky Derby and ensuing Triple Crown races are a grueling series that separates merely good horses from great ones.
But after this weekend's preps, Holy Bull towers above the prospective Derby field. Strodes Creek, a big strong, improving colt apt to like the 10-furlong Derby distance, looks next best. He's followed by Brocco, Tabasco Cat, Soul Of The Matter, Valiant Nature, Irgun, Go For Gin, Blumin' Affair and Maryland-bred Looming, who runs Saturday in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico.
Irgun won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday, but looked as if he might have trouble getting the 1 1/4 -mile Derby distance.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY
Selected prep races for the May 7 Kentucky Derby:
Date Race .. ... .. ... .. .Track .. ... .Winner
1/22 El Camino Real Derby . Bay Meadows . Tabasco Cat
1/22 Preview Stakes .. .. . Gulfstream .. Go For Gin
1/22 Santa Catalina Stakes .Santa Anita ..Wekiva Springs
1/30 Hutcheson Stakes .. . .Gulfstream .. Holy Bull
2/13 San Vicente Breeders' Cup Stks Santa Anita Fly'n J. Bryan
2/19 Fountain of Youth Stakes Gulfstream .Dehere
3/6 San Rafael Stakes .. ..Santa Anita .. Tabasco Cat
3/12 Bay Shore Stakes .. ..Aqueduct .. ...Prank Call
3/12 Florida Derby .. ... .Gulfstream .. .Holy Bull
3/12 Swale Stakes .. ... . Gulfstream .. .Arrival Time
3/19 Louisiana Derby .. .. Fair Grounds ..Kandaly
3/20 San Felipe Stakes .. .Santa Anita .. Soul Of The Matter
3/26 Gotham Stakes .. .. . Aqueduct .. .. Irgun
3/27 Tampa Bay Derby .. ...Tampa Bay .. ..Prix De Crouton
4/2 Jim Beam Stakes .. ... Turfway .. ... Polar Expedition
4/2 Private Terms .. .. .. Pimlico .. ... Looming
4/2 Rebel Stakes .. ... .. Oaklawn .. .. .Judge TC
4/3 Flamingo Stakes .. .. .Hialeah .. .. .Meadow Flight
4/9 Remington Park Derby ..Remington .. ..Smilin Singin Sam
4/9 Santa Anita Derby .. ..Santa Anita .. Brocco
4/16 Bluegrass Stakes .. ..Keeneland .. ..Holy Bull
4/16 Wood Memorial Stakes .Aqueduct .. .. Irgun