HALLANDALE BEACH, FL—Though it will be 30 years this month, Mike Smith recalls the 1994 Florida Derby (Grade 1) like it was yesterday, as well he should. His mount, Florida-bred Holy Bull, dispatched at no better than third choice in a full field of 14, made quick of work of his rivals en route to a performance for the ages.

For Smith, then a 28-year-old rising star that had already won more than 100 graded stakes and was coming off the first of back-to-back Eclipse Awards as North America’s champion jockey, it was a life-changing experience.

“It’s been a while [but] it sure doesn’t seem like it. I can remember it very well, I can tell you that,” Smith said. “It was just such an honor. He was just such a cool horse to ride and such a talented horse. He made me feel like I was invincible, like we couldn’t be beat almost.

“You always know in this game it’s tough to win one or two in a row. But he just gave me that feeling. I was always extremely confident when I rode him and I think it showed in the way I rode him most of the time,” he added. “He took me to another place, to another level.”

Holy Bull’s victory in Gulfstream Park’s signature race, to be run for the 73rd time Saturday as the headliner of a program featuring 10 stakes, five graded, worth $2.425 million in purses, was particularly notable since he was bred in Florida by Rachel Carpenter’s Pelican Stable.

Carpenter never got to see Holy Bull run. She passed away from cancer Aug. 13, 1993, the day before the grandson of Gulfstream’s 1969 Hutcheson (G2) and Fountain of Youth (G2)-winner Al Hattab made a successful career debut at Monmouth Park. Carpenter willed all 19 of her horses to her trainer, then 74-year-old Warren ‘Jimmy’ Croll Jr., who sold all but one—Holy Bull.

“Mr. Croll did such an amazing job with him,” Smith said. “You couldn’t help but root for Mr. Croll. He was such a great man, such a gentleman. The whole thing was a pretty amazing story. I always thought that it would have made a great movie. The Bull, he was special, man.”

Luis Rivera Jr. was aboard for his unveiling but when Holy Bull was shipped to New York for his second start 19 days later, it was Smith that got the call. Holy Bull cruised to a front-running seven-length triumph over Goodbye Doeny in the six-and-a-half-furlong allowance sprint, with End Sweep third. End Sweep would go on to win three stakes in 1994 topped by the Jersey Shore Breeders’ Cup (G3).

“Craig Perret was supposed to ride him. Craig was Jimmy Croll’s number one rider. He’s the guy that Jimmy would use. He rode Bet Twice, Housebuster and those horses,” Smith said. “When Jimmy decided he was going to run him over in New York, Craig was riding a really good colt called End Sweep. I had just ridden a horse for Jimmy in a race at Garden State Park and I won it, because Craig couldn’t go. He was out of town.

“So I rode that horse and won, and then Craig already had a call in the allowance race so Jimmy put me on,” Smith said. “I was in New York at the time and doing really well, really starting to take off. I was fortunate enough to have already ridden a winner for Jimmy and Craig couldn’t ride him and I was the next man up.”

For the rest of his racing career, Holy Bull would never have another rider. He ran two more times as a 2-year-old, winning the Futurity (G1) at Belmont Park and the Florida Sire Stakes In Reality at Calder Race Course. And though he was undefeated in four starts, he lost the Eclipse Award championship to Dehere, who went five-for-seven with four graded-stakes wins including the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1).

“Without a doubt, [Holy Bull will] always be in my top two or three. I hold a very, very special place in my heart for him,” Smith said. “Not only did he get me going in those quality type races that he won, but he just gave me a confidence. He took me to another level in my riding, as well.

“He gave me a confidence that was so strong,” he added. “You learn how to believe in one when you’ve got a good one instead of worrying whenever you have a decent horse, you hope you do this or you hope you do that. It didn’t matter with him. I just thought he could do anything. He could overcome anything. He could do anything. He was just so talented.”

Holy Bull kicked off his 3-year-old season Jan. 30, 1994 in the seven-furlong Hutcheson, scaring away all but four rivals, and was sent off an overwhelming favorite. He and Smith blazed through a half-mile in :44.10, opened a a length-and-a-half lead at the top of the stretch and crossed the wire three-quarters of a length ahead of Patton, earning their fifth straight win.

There were no apparent obstacles as Holy Bull went for six in a row in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Fountain of Youth, the last local prep for the mile-and-an-eighth Florida Derby four weeks later. He trained without a hiccup into the race and early on found himself once again in front, pressed by Halo’s Image through a half-mile in :45.78. Though slower than the Hutcheson, Holy Bull sharply dropped back and out of contention as Halo’s Image inherited a lead he would ultimately give up to Dehere. Dehere went on to win by three-quarters of a length. Holy Bull wound up last, beaten 24 ¼ lengths.

While there was initial concern Holy Bull had been injured, Croll quickly determined that the horse instead had displaced his palate—not uncommon in racehorses—which caused a difficulty in breathing and explained his sudden lack of response. Provided he came along well, the Florida Derby was still the target.

“It was strange. It was nothing like him, so right away I knew something was going on. Soundness-wise he felt okay underneath me, but he just completely just pulled up. I didn’t know what it was,” Smith said. “I guess he entrapped so bad he just didn’t get any air. I don’t know why that happened or what it was that made it happen that day, but I certainly knew it wasn’t him.

“I had already beat just about every horse in that race pretty handily. Jimmy told me what it was the next morning and I said, ‘Would that make him stop as bad as he did?’” he added. “Jimmy said, ‘Oh, yeah. But we’ll change a few things, put on a tongue-tie and this and that and that won’t happen again.’”

Bettors were cautious heading into the Florida Derby making Go for Gin, second in the Fountain of Youth, and 1993 Champagne runner-up Crary, the co-favorites at 2-1. Holy Bull was next at 5-2 with Ride the Rails and Craig Perret closest to the top three at 5-1. It was the second and last time Holy Bull would not go off as the favorite.

“I’m sure there was [concern], but I was just so confident in him. I knew that if he ran his race he could win, all going well,” Smith said. “I didn’t think that there was a better horse than him in the race. He just needed to run his race. The last time out certainly wasn’t his race and if he just ran his race, he’d beat those horses. Not only did he beat them, he pretty much beat them the way he wanted to.”

A big part of Smith’s confidence came in the weeks between the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, as Holy Bull trained for what was then the longest race he had run with the most opposition he had ever faced.

“We worked him for the Florida Derby and I remember we worked him seven-eighths because he had pulled up the race before. Jimmy thought he needed a good work because he didn’t get enough out of that race and, man, he worked unbelievable,” Smith said. “I forget what he went in, but it was just crazy. And the rest is history.

“He went into the Florida Derby and just romped. And as he got more into his 3-year-old year, he gained even more confidence in himself and just got better and better where he didn’t need the lead or anything like that,” Smith added. “He just knew he was the man, no matter what.”

Holy Bull broke alertly from post six in the Florida Derby and Smith immediately found himself on the lead. Holy Bull was pressed into the first turn again by Halo’s Image before his rival backed off and enabled Holy Bull to take a two-length advantage after a quarter-mile in :22.52. The margin went unchanged following a half in :46.16, then grew steadily as Holy Bull clicked off fractions of 1:10.16 and 1:34.96.

Three lengths ahead of Halo’s Image approaching the stretch, Holy Bull opened up once straightened for home and powered through the lane under a hand ride from Smith to win by five-and-three-quarters lengths in 1:47.66 over a fast main track. It was the fastest winning time since Alydar’s 1:47 in 1978 and the second-largest margin of victory behind Plugged Nickle’s six-length triumph in 1980. To date, the only other horse to win by more is Empire Maker, won won by nine-and-three-quarter lengths in 2003.

“His mannerisms were different that day than the time before. The time before he was kind of in distress. He was going into the first turn and he had his ears pinned. He wasn’t happy, he wasn’t comfortable, and of course he pulled up,” Smith said. “We went into that first turn on Florida Derby day and, man, he was about as smooth as smooth could be and happy as happy could be and I knew, ‘Oh, man. He’s gonna run today.’”

After crossing the wire Smith cheered and pumped his fist once, then again. It was a moment of both relief and pure exhilaration.

“It was like, ‘He’s back.’ That’s all,” Smith said. “He was just like his name. He was holy, and he was a bull.”

 Holy Bull was the first of three straight Florida Derby wins for Smith, followed by Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Unbridled’s Song in 1996. He is one of just six jockeys to win the Florida Derby at least three times and one of only two with three in a row. Fellow Hall of Famer Bill Hartack (1957-59) is the other.

“To even be mentioned in the same breath as someone like Mr. Hartack is a great honor,” Smith said. “He was a great man, incredible rider and a good friend of mine, actually.”

After the Florida Derby, Holy Bull went on to win the Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland and run 12th in the Kentucky Derby (G1). Croll bypassed the rest of the Triple Crown and instead pointed Holy Bull to the Met Mile (G1) against older horses, which he won by five-and-a-half lengths—again in front-running fashion. More wins followed in the Dwyer (G2), Haskell (G1), Travers (G1) and Woodward (G1), culminating in his being named champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year.

“He went on to win the Met and beat older horses the way he did. You look at the bunch of horses that he beat and then you go back and you look at the Woodward when he beat the best horses on every coast, it was crazy,” Smith said. “And the Travers, too. They said at the time they were the fastest fractions since Man o’ War and then to hold off a strong closer like Concern was amazing.”

Holy Bull raced five times at Gulfstream, also winning the 1995 Olympic Handicap in his 4-year-old debut as a prep for the Donn Handicap (G1)—now the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1)—three weeks later. Running second to fellow future Hall of Famer Cigar, Holy Bull pulled up after a half-mile with what turned out to be pulled ligaments in his left foreleg. He would not race again.

“It was just a fluke. He had never showed any signs of not being sound and for him to bow a tendon like that going into the first turn was just weird. He just stepped wrong. He had just kind of made the lead and had his ears forward and, boom, it just happened,” Smith said. “I don’t know why it happened or what caused it to happen. But we were just blessed that we got him stopped fast enough that it didn’t do any more damage. He was a smart horse. He certainly was on my side. He was trying to get himself stopped as quick as he could.”

Holy Bull was retired with 13 wins and $2,481,760 in purse earnings. He entered stud at Jonabell Farm in 1996 and never left, buried there after his passing on June 7, 2017 at age 26 from infirmities of old age. His top progeny include 2005 Kentucky Derby (G1)-winner Giacomo, fittingly ridden by Smith; 2000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1)-winner and 2-year-old male champion Macho Uno; and Grade 1 winners Bishop Court Hill, Confessional, Flashy Bull and Pohave.

In addition to his success, Holy Bull’s personality and striking gray appearance made him a fan favorite wherever he went. It was the kind of adulation Smith would later find with the Hall of Fame mare Zenyatta and 2018 Triple Crown champion Justify.

“He was the first horse that I’d been around that got the fanfare that he got. People would show up with signs and T-shirts they made of him and all kinds of stuff,” he said. “He was the first horse I’d seen that kind of stuff happen around. They loved him. He was definitely a crowd pleaser.”

Return to the March 28 issue of Wire to Wire