SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- For most of his four decades as a horse trainer, Jimmy Croll has been saddled with a stereotype -- one that is not terribly flattering.
In a profession where patience is one of the supreme virtues, Croll has a reputation for seeking, and getting, fast results. He would typically rev up his 2-year-olds by midsummer, train them hard and win sprint stakes. But Croll's precocious youngsters would fade from prominence long before the 3-year-old classics.
"I know he's had that reputation," said Croll's principal owner, Bob Levy, "but it's a bad rap." He points out that Croll has trained durable, late-blooming distance runners like Al Hattab and Parka. But the popular image has stuck to Croll, and few racing people would have expected to see him take a colt through the whole Triple Crown series. Fewer still would have expected to see him deliver a confident, flawless, and sometimes inspired job of training in this tough situation.
But as Bet Twice has become one of the star racehorses of his generation and one of the principal contenders for Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes, he has brought a new respect and appreciation for the skills of his 67-year-old trainer.
Like most of the horses Levy buys for Croll, Bet Twice was moderately priced -- he cost $50,000 at a Kentucky sale. And like most of them, he showed his ability quickly. "Jimmy likes to find out what he's got," Levy said. He found out when Bet Twice won his first five starts and was ranked among the country's top 2-year-olds: a potential Kentucky Derby horse. But was Jimmy Croll a Derby trainer?
Croll answered that question under the most difficult of circumstances at Churchill Downs. Bet Twice had just run the one bad race of his career -- a lackluster effort in the Florida Derby. Now he had four weeks until the main event in Louisville. With uncertainty suddenly surrounding the colt's form, the temptation had to be great for Croll to find out what he had, to give Bet Twice a series of hard workouts or another prep race.
But Croll stayed cool. He was convinced the Florida race was an aberration, and he stuck to his plans for a fairly relaxed pre-Derby training schedule. Bet Twice's main workout was a slow, undazzling 1 1/8-mile move, but it was good enough to prepare the colt for a solid second-place effort.
Before the Belmont Stakes, too, Croll chose to train his horse is a seemingly un-Croll-like fashion. "I'd never run in a Belmont before," the trainer said, "so I talked to a lot of knowledgeable people and the consensus was that you need a fresh horse with a little juice in him. So I didn't work him fast. I didn't work him long. I gave him long gallops like they do in Europe." The result: a 14-length runaway victory.
For the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, however, Croll knew he had to shift gears. "After the Belmont," he said, "was the first time the horse had shown some stress, some wear and tear. So I backed off his training -- he didn't breeze for three weeks -- and then gradually got him cranked up again. I figured the Haskell had to be a speed race, so I concentrated on sharpening him." In the Haskell, Bet Twice was able to stay close to the speedster Lost Code, then held off Alysheba for a dramatic victory.
It is evident that Croll has kept Bet Twice sharp for the showdown of all the country's best 3-year-olds in the Travers. After he worked five-eighths of a mile at Saratoga in 59 seconds, with the final furlong in 11 3/5, the clocker's comment in the Daily Racing Form (which is usually a model of restraint) said: "Bet Twice was brilliant."
In the Travers, Bet Twice and Croll will be facing an all-star lineup, not only of horses but trainers. The four other principal contenders are all trained by men who have been enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame -- Alysheba by Jack Van Berg, Java Gold by Mack Miller, Temperate Sil by Charlie Whittingham and Gulch by LeRoy Jolley. But after his work during the past few months, Jimmy Croll has no cause to feel intimidated in this company.