Almost three years ago -- January 22, 1995, to be exact -- the four-year-old gray colt Holy Bull cantered out onto the racing strip at Gulfstream Park to run in the Olympic Handicap. Head bowed, he looked extraordinary. Muscular. Intense. Intelligent. Imposing. He fairly glowed, the embodiment of an altogether different species -- a supraspecies, an uber-horse. Unraced since the previous September when he'd won the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park near New York City, Holy Bull was on the verge of being named 1994's horse of the year when he made his seasonal debut in the Olympic, which would serve as a springboard for a campaign to achieve a similar feat in 1995.
Despite the four-month layoff, Holy Bull easily defeated five other horses in the seven-furlong (seven-eighths of a mile) Olympic -- not his favorite distance -- including the very good Patton and Birdonthewire. Three weeks later at Gulfstream for the one-and-one-eighth-mile Donn Handicap (perhaps Holy Bull's best distance), the colt again pranced in the prerace post parade, although he radiated less of the same inner light that had emanated from him before the Olympic. Still, he appeared awesome. The crowd's overwhelming betting choice in the Donn, Holy Bull faced only one serious rival, a rapidly improving five-year-old horse named Cigar who'd won three consecutive races, including a one-and-one-sixteenth-mile event at Gulfstream the same day as the Olympic.
Cigar broke on top in the Donn, chased by Holy Bull, with seven others in pursuit. As the horses raced through the first turn, Holy Bull challenged Cigar for the lead, but as the two made their way down the backstretch together, running away from the rest as expected, Holy Bull suddenly bobbled and was pulled up by his jockey, Mike Smith. The Gulfstream crowd (more than 18,000) emitted a spontaneous collective gasp, as track announcer/race caller Tom Durkin pointed out in concerned but calm tones what had just occurred. Cigar continued on to win the Donn handily, then proceeded to reel off twelve back-to-back victories (he was named horse of the year in both 1995 and 1996), very likely establishing himself as the best-known racehorse in the U.S. since Secretariat in the early Seventies. Holy Bull, for his part, sustained a pulled suspensory in his left foreleg in the Donn, and never ran again. He was retired immediately to become a stallion.
That weird innate duality -- Holy Bull's descent, Cigar's ascent -- completely defines thoroughbred racing. The sport -- and it is a sport -- possesses a kind of simultaneous ecstasy and tragedy. Passionately exciting, numbingly sad. If you love horse racing, then you must accept the sadness while cherishing the joy. Only a hairbreadth separates the two.
Gulfstream Park opens January 3, and the racing season continues through March 16, racing every day except Tuesday. First post time is 1 p.m. Admission is $3 (grandstand) or $5 (clubhouse). Gulfstream is located at 901 S. Federal Hwy., Hallandale. Call 954-454-7000.