In 1878, a colt named Himyar went to post as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Although he was well-bred and highly regarded, he could not make up the ground against Dark Star, losing by a length. More than a century later, nine generations down the male line, a colt named Holy Bull went to post as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Although he was the horse to beat, he put in an uncharacteristic performance and finished twelfth. What links these two, besides blood, was their ability to produce horses that did something they failed at themselves – win the roses on the first Saturday in May.
Although not the most popular male line, Himyar’s lineage stays afloat through horses like Include, Concern, Macho Uno, and Holy Bull himself. And every year since 1996, the Holy Bull Stakes showcases some of the best three year-olds early in the year. It’s been won by horses like Barbaro and Dialed In, and in 1994, when the race was simply the Preview Stakes, it was captured by the horse that defeated Holy Bull himself in the Derby, Go For Gin.
Though Himyar was bested by Dark Star that May day, he would get the better of his old rival as a stallion. His best son was Domino, “the Black Whirlwind,” the champion two year-old of 1893. Through a stud career cut short by his early death in 1897, Domino established a sireline that produced some of the most notable names in American racing – Colin and Ack Ack top the list – and continues to live on to this day through Broad Brush and his sons. Domino got most of the accolades, but Himyar’s other great son was Plaudit, who was a half-brother to the great racehorse and sire Hastings. 20 years after Himyar lost the Kentucky Derby, Plaudit won the event with the great Willie Simms aboard. It was through Plaudit that Himyar is connected with that other great Derby flop, Holy Bull.
Plaudit sired champion King James, and King James sired Spur, a multiple stakes winner. Spur’s son Sting set a world record in 1925 – 1:41 1/5 for a mile and 70 yards at the old Jamaica track. Speed was in this line; Questionnaire was a fleet-footed stakes winner, and his son Free For All set a track record. And yes, Free For All’s son Rough’n Tumble was a nice racehorse, but his greatest son did most of the talking. Dr. Fager was a horse of epic proportions – he simply ran the competition off their feet. In the Washington Park Handicap of 1968, he took a nonchalant spin around the track to set the world record for a mile on dirt, a record which has yet to be broken. That year, he took home a whopping four championships, and he is spoken of in the same breath as Man O’ War, Secretariat, and Citation.
Born the same year, the only two things Dr. Fager and Minnesota Mac shared in common was Rough’n Tumble, their sire, and Tartan Stable. Though Minnesota Mac was a stakes winner, he never would match Dr. Fager’s quality. But, being owned by Tartan Stable, he did have the opportunity to see some top mares upon retirement. One was Ta Wee, Dr. Fager’s champion half-sister by Intentionally. Everyone knew that Dr. Fager had been born by a cross of Aspidistra and the Rough’n Tumble lineage; why shouldn’t that cross work a generation later? With this in mind, Great Above was born in 1972.
He shared the same propensity for speed as both his dam and his male ancestors, setting a six furlong mark at Aqueduct and then breaking it a year later by nearly two seconds. Though he wasn’t the most consistent horse – only winning 15 times out of 63 starts – he went to stud and produced 39 stakes winners, including the great Holy Bull.
Holy Bull was a wonder to watch on the track. It was go big or go home for the gray colt – he either won, or he was nowhere. In 16 starts, he won 13 of them (11 being stakes). 1994 – 20 years ago – was the year of the Bull, which ended in awards for champion three year-old colt and Horse of the Year. The only major blot on that otherwise sparkling resume was that no-show in the Kentucky Derby. His second start in 1995 would be his first real challenge of the year; unfortunately, Holy Bull pulled up with an injury on the backstretch, never to race again. The winner was Cigar, who would become America’s next great star.
A little more than a decade after Holy Bull finished 12th in the Derby as the favorite, his son Giacomo came out of the clouds to win the prestigious race at odds of 50-1. With that victory – and Plaudit’s as well – the Thoroughbred industry proved, as it does time and time again, that you don’t necessarily have to win the big race in order to be remembered for it.