A Real Horseman

By Steve Montemarano
His quick sentences are a collage of racing history. Looking into Jimmy Croll's blue eyes, one senses sincerity. He puts you at ease, and his uncomplicated approach to both people and horses becomes clear. When in Croll's company, there's no struggle to make conversation. Heck no. It's a straight-up affair.

Croll has a perfect part on the left side of his gray hair. He harkens of a time when men used hair tonic, not mousse spritz. His collared shirt is neatly ironed and zip-up paddock boots are polished. The shed row is humble and clean. No flowers or glitz, yet there's a feeling of genuine quality. He is from an era when trainers let their horses do the talking. And Croll has tutored such well-spoken stars as Forward Gal, Parka, Al Hattab, Bet Twice, Housebuster, Holy Bull, and Mr. Prospector.

His fingers are thick like a working man's digits should be. Yet his smooth hands suggest he does not toil. Even with success, he remains down-to-earth. During his heyday, Croll would arrive at the track in a blue Buick station wagon. Imagine, a Hall of Famer driving a woody? Hmmm. I like this guy!

At subtle urging, he talks about purchasing Mr. Prospector as a yearling at Saratoga and how he almost caused champion Housebuster to dump his exercise rider. Croll sheepishly admits he whistled to the horse as 'Buster shuffled back toward the gap after a morning gallop. A quarter-mile later, the rider finally pulled up the surging beast. "I never did that again," Croll declares, his eyes aghast. His horsemanship is superb. He nursed an ex-claimer, Parka, back from a broken sesamoid with only a pressure bandage to win the 1965 turf championship.

The morning of the 1987 Haskell Invitational (gr. I), Croll pulled a six-inch ruler from his shirt pocket. "I'll scratch if they scrape the track," he said quietly. He then walked the course and polled the cushion depth. Smiling, he said, "It's OK; we'll run." Monmouth Park's signature race turned into a battle royal between Bet Twice, Alysheba, and Lost Code. Croll won, besting that year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner and the gutsy Marylander.

Another time, we met in Kentucky and Croll appeared worried. The FBI had contacted him regarding Holy Bull's performance as the beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby. The agent alleged an outsider had tampered with the horse. Yet, in true Croll style, he shrugs it off. A man more interested in preserving racing's reputation than perhaps enhancing his own or tarnishing another's.

In fact, Croll only seems motivated to help racing. He would work Holy Bull in between races and even ship him to other tracks to just parade before the fans. There was no hurry to retire him and cash out, either. Holy Bull was bequeathed to Croll and success was just meant to be. It's that simple.

As we walked the shed row, Croll stopped by the stall of a prospect. The horse wore a harness to restrain attempts to nuzzle its bandaged legs. "That's my invention," he said, pointing to the leather straps. "Works every time." Croll's horses seem calmer than most. But then again, the whole shed has that feeling. It's busy, but not bustling. Much like speaking with Croll, one has to pause to appreciate what is actually going on.

He opines about 2-year olds: "I won't buy many at the sales. I like to put the speed into them myself." And what about Mr. Prospector? "Run like the wind, but his shins gave me fits." Ask a question, get an answer. There's a refreshing certainty about his views.

Today, after 64 years of training, Croll runs a small stable. He owns his charges along with a couple of steadfast clients. He remains resilient and without a whisper of cynicism. An amazing feat because racing's challenges can wither even the most stalwart constitution.

As a youngster, I remember leaning over the paddock rail waiting to glimpse Croll's horses. They seem to represent optimism. It's hard to describe. Even today, backstretch railbirds respectfully stop, mid-conversation, to watch a Croll horse gallop by in a simple black and yellow saddle towel. Understated quality. Honest hope for the working man.

May another champion walk his shed row. He is a consummate horseman, the real deal.

STEVE MONTEMARANO is a former backstretch worker and freelance writer who lives in Ohio and works for Merial Animal Health Co.