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The influence of Holy Bull in Caravaggio’s bloodlines presents an exciting prospect. Coolmore’s gifted three year-old has already flashed brilliance on the turf. But this is just the beginning. 

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The magnificent CARAVAGGIO and Davey Leigh, his lad. Photo and copyright, David Betts. Used with the permission of David Betts.

 

HOLY BULL, CARAVAGGIO’S BM SIRE

Bred by Pelican Farm, Holy Bull was a son of Tartan Farms’ Great Above, and the mare, Sharon Brown. Great Above was a useful stallion with a 71.2% strike rate from a total crop of 617 named foals. The stallion’s best progeny was Holy Bull; he was also the BM sire of the great Housebuster. Great Above’s dam, Ta Wee, was a two-time champion American sprinter and arguably one of the greatest distaffers of all time:

It was from his dam, Sharon Brown, that Holy Bull got his grey coat. The mare’s sire, Al Hattab, was a homozygous grey. Al Hattab was campaigned by Rachel Carpenter, Holy Bull’s first owner, and he won the Hutcheson and the Fountain of Youth in 1969. A direct descendant of The Tetrarch, Al Hattab (pictured below) carried Mumtaz Mahal 4X4 in his pedigree and held a distinct resemblance to Mahmoud.

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The first time I saw Holy Bull race — in the Florida Derby — was enough to make him my (Kentucky) Derby favourite. It was a moving race to watch and that courageous heart seemed to jump out at you, even when it was mediated by a television screen.

Here he is winning the Florida Derby (#5), under a hand ride by Mike Smith. Dave Johnson calls the race:

“The Bull,” as he was affectionately dubbed, just rose above every other colt that season on the Derby Trail. And he didn’t appear to have a track preference — the Bull won short or long, on tracks from fast to sloppy. And, unlike many famous American thoroughbreds, his reputation had little to do with his performance in the prestigious Kentucky Derby:

Much to the perplexity of Hall of Fame trainer, Warren A. “Jimmy” Croll and Smith, their brilliant colt was a complete flop on the most important day of his young life. For those watching, Holy Bull’s loss was the kind of upset that the mind refuses to process.

Post-race, both Croll and Smith indicated that The Bull seemed not quite himself: he was sluggish and never really fired. According to multiple-award winning journalist, Steve Haskin, Croll would say until the day he died that someone had “gotten” to his colt, i.e. tampered with him in some way, likely with drugs.

Although this was never proven, the remainder of The Bull’s 1994 campaign was nothing if not brilliant. He took eight of ten Grade 1 races that year, to be awarded Eclipses for Champion Three Year-Old (Colt) and Horse of the Year. The legendary Daily Racing Form blazed the headline “Bullmania Sweeps The Nation” as Holy Bull’s 3 year-old campaign came to a close.

The Bull’s owner and trainer had inherited the colt from one of his longtime clients, Rachel Carpenter. Upon her death, the 73 year-old Croll became Holy Bull’s new owner.  Jimmy Croll had an eye for promising thoroughbreds: twenty years before The Bull came into his life, he had picked out two bay colts, Royal and Regal, a colt he took to the Kentucky Derby the year that Secretariat ran — and Mr. Prospector. As North American readers will know, Mr. Prospector turned out to be arguably the most important stallion in the history of American breeding.¹

Below, Jimmy Croll holding his two three year-olds, Royal And Regal and, in the foreground, Mr. Prospector.

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ROYAL AND REGAL, Jimmy Croll, and in the foreground, MR. PROSPECTOR. In THE VAULT’S private collection. Photo and copyright: Associated Press/AP

In the 1994 Donn Handicap where he was pitted against another champion, Cigar, Holy Bull was pulled up suddenly by jockey Mike Smith. Here is how Kathleen Jones, writing in “Thoroughbred Champions: For the Fans of the Horse in Racing” described the scene:

“…Like man walking on the moon, we remember precisely where we were and what we were doing at the time. I recall the lump in my throat watching the iron horse coasting to a halt on the backstretch. The audible collective gasp of those packing the grandstand, the terror in the jockey’s eyes, the trembling voice of his trainer, and the tears of his groom are part of most people’s last image of this noble athlete. Agonizing hours passed as we waited for positive news and finally it came. Holy Bull would survive.”²

The positive news was that The Bull had strained ligaments and a bowed tendon, but even though ligaments and tendons heal, Croll made the painful decision to retire him. Mike Smith cancelled his other riding commitments, calling the moment “devastating” and adding, “I feel the life has come out of me.” And then his eyes filled with tears. Jimmy Croll was no less affected: “It’s over, it’s over. I said the day he retired would be the saddest day in my life. It happened a lot sooner than I expected.”³–¹

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“It’s over, it’s over…” HOLY BULL and his owner, HOF trainer Jimmy Croll. Photo and copyright: NYT

Days later, leading his bandaged colt out of his stall on the backstretch for the last time, Croll added, “If he wasn’t Holy Bull, I’d bring him back to the races next year…I’m sorry we couldn’t finish the year with him. He would have gone out in a blaze of glory. He has courage and class. I’m going to miss him. Everybody’s going to miss him.”³–²

Retired to Jonabell Farm in Kentucky (later to become Darley) where he lived until the age of twenty-six, Holy Bull was never forgotten by his connections and his legions of fans, who proudly posted photos of him from their visits to Darley right up until this year, when the beloved HOF Champion died. The sire of BC winner, Macho Uno, and Giacomo, the winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby, as well as Flashy Bull, the winner of the Stephen Foster Handicap, it is to his daughters that The Bull has passed his legacy. Grade/Group One winners Judy The Beauty (out of Holy Blitz), Caravaggio (out of Mekko Hokte), Munnings (out of La Comete), Cairo Prince (out of Holy Bubbette) and most recently Holy Helena (out of Holy Grace), are so far the best. As of this writing, Holy Bull’s BM count stands at 50 winners and rising.

On his death on June 7, 2017, tributes sprung up all over social media. Here’s one that highlights Holy Bull’s greatest moments and features people who knew and loved him best, including Jimmy Croll, Mike Smith and legendary race commentator, Tom Durkin:

 

CARAVAGGIO

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CARAVAGGIO’S dam, MEKKO HOKTE (Holy Bull), with her 2017 American Pharoah colt foal. The mare also had a filly, a full sibling to CARAVAGGIO, in 2016.

The flat racing season is in full bloom in the UK and part of what makes it an exciting year is the Aidan O’Brien-trained Caravaggio. Like his BM sire at the same age, the handsome grey is charismatic, courageous and has earned himself no shortage of admirers.

Here is the two year-old Caravaggio winning the G1 Keeneland Phoenix Stakes:

From the 2014 crop of the late Scat Daddy (Johannesburg), Caravaggio was a superstar in 2016 and has continued to develop into a powerful and talented sprinter in his three year-old campaign. Ballydoyle’s champion three year-old may indeed be his father’s son in some ways, but in others he is without question the work of his champion BM sire. For starters, the overall resemblance in the conformation of Caravaggio and Holy Bull is striking:

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HOLY BULL, the BM sire of CARAVAGGIO.

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CARAVAGGIO pictured winning the G1 Keeneland Phoenix Stakes in 2016.

There is no question that Caravaggio’s pedigree is a gift to the Coolmore broodmares, providing a potential outcross to the Danehill/Sadler’s Wells sire line. But with 3 X 5 to Mr. Prospector and a generous dose of both Intentionally and The Axe in his female family in the fifth generation, there are also other tantalizing influences in his bloodline. Intentionally, aka the “Black Bullet,” sired Ta Wee and In Reality, both important names in American thoroughbred history. The former was one of the greatest American sprinters of all time, herself a daughter of Aspidistra, one of Florida’s most influential broodmares, who is also the dam of the incomparable Dr. Fager. Too, the European champions Known Fact and son, Warning, descend from Intentionality’s sire line.

TA WEE_2650643_origIn Reality was an excellent sire who would have rated as an above-average runner had he been born in another year: Damascus and Dr., Fager, his contemporaries, rather bumped him off centre stage. Through In Reality, the sire line of the legendary Man O’ War continues through his progeny and their descendants. Sons Relaunch, With Anticipation and the only horse to have ever won the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice in a row, Tiznow, are the best progeny of In Reality.

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The handsome IN REALITY carried on the sire line of MAN O’ WAR. He appears in CARAVAGGIO’S female family in the 4th generation. Of note is the conformation, especially the head, passed on to HOLY BULL and to CARAVAGGIO.

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Through his female family, CARAVAGGIO carries some distinctive features of IN REALITY. Photo and copyright, David Betts. Used with the permission of David Betts.

Not a stretch to see why the decision was made to campaign Caravaggio as a sprinter, market preferences apart. His pedigree abounds with them, top and bottom. But Holy Bull won dominantly at distances over a mile, making it exciting to see whether or not Caravaggio carries this trait and expresses it to at least some of his offspring once he retires.

In the meantime, Caravaggio launched his three year-old season in May at Naas, after a layoff of ten months to heal an injured muscle in his ribcage. Colts coming off such a lengthly break often need a race just to get themselves back into the game:

Aidan O’Brien was well pleased with Caravaggio’s win, letting it be known that the colt would train on as a sprinter,“He’s showed nothing to say he wouldn’t get a mile. We worked him seven furlongs and the petrol gauge never shifted, but I was afraid that he was so quick that it would be the wrong thing to do. We could train him for a mile and go back, but we didn’t want to lose the brilliance.” (QIPCO British Champions Series website)

Appearing at Royal Ascot in June in the Commonwealth Cup, Caravaggio reared up in the stalls just before the start, making his win from mid-pack even more remarkable. It made for a thrilling race, what with Ryan Moore’s tactics as he brilliantly managed Caravaggio and Harry Angel vying for the lead:

But in the Darley July Cup, Caravaggio appeared not to really fire, breaking decidedly flat-footed from the stalls after again rearing up. For a sprinter, a clean break is all and without it, Caravaggio’s chances were compromised right from the start. The colt made an effort to catch the eventual winner Harry Angel near the line, but it was too little too late.

It was his first defeat of his career.

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CARAVAGGIO at work at Ballydoyle in 2017. NAAS Racecourse photo.

Prior to the July Cup, the plan was to ship Caravaggio to Australia for the the 10 million (AUS) Everest at Randwick in October, the world’s richest turf race. The Maurice de Gheest on August 6 at Deauville — in which Caravaggio has been entered with a string of other Ballydoyle colts — may be a real possibility, but at this writing has yet to be confirmed. Depending on how the colt fares in the Maurice de Gheest, a decision will be made about shipping him to Australia and, possibly, to California for the BC Mile.

It only adds to the drama of the sport that Caravaggio lost the July Cup. For trainer O’Brien and Coolmore, losing is as much a part of racing as winning; it’s the mental strength and ability of their champion colts and fillies that count most.

“It was one of those days, they are only flesh and blood and we’ll look forward to him the next day,” O’Brien reflected, following Caravaggio’s loss.

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CARAVAGGIO being cooled down after the Darley July Cup.

There is nothing to indicate that Caravaggio hasn’t trained on into his three year-old season: if anything, he’s a stronger and more confident colt. The acting up in the stalls will be addressed at Ballydoyle and once that’s corrected, he should be back to his best form in a sport that abounds with talented sprinters worldwide. To take the crown, Caravaggio will need to be the best of them and, as his connections know, that is no small feat.

If Caravaggio has indeed been kissed by an American legend, he won’t disappoint. In fact, he should fly over any turf under any conditions, powered by a grandsire whose heart never quit:

 

BONUS FEATURES

“Here he is … the immortal Holy Bull” Retired from stallion duties, Holy Bull parades at Darley in July 2012 for his many fans:

Darley’s stallion promo for Holy Bull:

 

SOURCES

¹ Haskin, Steve. The Blood Horse (online): Farewell To A Friend: RIP Holy Bull. June 8, 2017.

² Jones, Kathleen. “At Home With Holy Bull” in Thoroughbred Champions: For the Fans of the Horse in Racing, March 1996, Vol.3, No.2

³–¹ Durst, Joseph. Horse Racing: “Holy Bull Is Retired After Injury To Leg.” The New York Times, February 12, 1995.

³–² Durso, Joseph. Thoroughbred Racing: “Well Wishes For A Retiree In Barn 3.” The New York Times, February 13, 1995.

Aidan O’Brien Fan Site: http://www.aidanobrienfansite.com

Betts, David. Photography: https://www.facebook.com/davidbettsphotos/?fref=ts

Hunter, Avalyn. American Classic Pedigrees. http://www.americanclassicpedigrees.com

A special thank you to Tom Durkin, for giving me a title for this article; to David Betts, for permission to feature a few of his fabulous photos; to Paul Rhodes of the Aidan O’Brien Fan Site for his support. 

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