Holy Roller: One Hella Big Racehorse

The Australian website Punters took a look back in time at the life and career ofHoly Roller, the 18.1-hand racehorse who became a huge (literally) fan favorite in Australia back in the 90’s.

The gelding was too big to get on the scales, but he was estimated to have weighed almost 1,800 pounds, about 660 pounds heavier than a “normal” racehorse. His head was heavier than most jockeys at 110  pounds, and his feet were trimmed as short as possible to fit into a size 8 shoe; 3 sizes bigger than a typical racehorse. Holy Roller was a notable winner, finishing first in 12 out of 25 race starts, but his career as one of the most enormous thoroughbreds to date didn’t exactly start out on the right foot hoof.

Actually, even the fact that he made it to the racetrack at all was a huge defiance of the odds. His November 1992 birth took over an hour at Woodland Stud, and was very difficult for his mother Secret Blessing.

When he finally came into the world, his size made it obvious why it had been so much of a struggle. It worried the breeders when he was unable to muster the strength to stand for over an hour (about five times as long as it takes normal foals), but when he finally did get himself up he was almost five feet tall! He was simply named “Huge,” and when he struggled to nurse for another 30 minutes one of the vets bluntly spoke his mind: “He hasn’t got a hope.”

Roller’s custom made size 6 1/2 shoe. (photo via Punters)

But he was wrong. Despite gurgling, along with other breathing issues, Holy Roller gradually made it under the training of renowned trainer John Hawkes. Hawkes’s initial assessment? “He would look good pulling a cart.”

Another trainer took one baffled look at the yearling and commented: “My God! What have we got here?”

Here’s some more handler insults, according to Punter:

“I remember when we took him swimming; you’d be halfway across the dam before his feet left bottom.”~Ingham trainer Pat Quinn “His head alone would be 50kg. He’s a gentle giant.” ~Wayne Hawkes

And don’t forget the jockeys! Oh, the jockeys.

“He’s so big I couldn’t see the other horses. I had to practically stand up and look over the horse’s head to see where we were going.” ~Larry Cassidy “You’re up so high that you’re looking down on the others and they look like ponies.”~Darren Guaci “Don’t put a big jockey on him, he’ll hit his head on the stall.”~Kevin Moses

Adding fuel to the naysayers’ flame was his insulting stud record, which read:

“Very big horse. Vacant look. Will not exert himself except under extreme pressure. Can only go as fast as a slow canter (being flogged). Gurgles. Not an athlete. Future is dismal.”

Well, poor guy! But despite the slights Hawkes directed at the huge beast, the trainer continued to bring up Holy Roller with good training. He even began to see some positive qualities: “This huge lump knows where he’s putting his feet and has tremendous balance,” he wrote. As he kept growing, he also filled out proportionally, and was quite sturdy. Things were looking up for the giant.

Life as a Racehorse

While his struggles just trying to survive as a baby were rough, his start as a racehorse were just plain embarrassing. His premiere was the 1200m maiden at Canterbury as a two-year-old in 1995.

The bookies opened him at 33-1, but in the end he had blown out to a pathetic 100-1. The tight turns of the racetrack were tough for him, and his second-to-last finish proved all his doubters right. Even his name is slightly offensive: Merriam-Webster defines a “Holy Roller” as “a member of one of the Protestant sects whose worship meetings are characterized by spontaneous expressions of emotional excitement.”

While it doesn’t really make much sense, his career did go on to have plenty of spontaneity.

Jockey Kevin Moses presiding over the field aboard Holy Roller. (Photo by Sportpix).
Jockey Kevin Moses presiding over the field aboard Holy Roller. (Photo by Sportpix).

Although Holy Roller didn’t quite “get it” at first, he had a steep learning curve. In his fourth start at Kembla Grange he broke his maiden status with noticeable hutzpah at over a mile—the beginning of his successful career. He was some given time off to grow more, and he returned ready to redeem himself, grown to his full 18.1 hands.

Back on the track, he won four races in a row. But then, perplexingly, he lost in a big way. Then, he won easily at his next race, and as his career progressed it became typical for his winning sprees to be interspersed with occasional flops.

Dr. Rod Hoare was a veterinarian who was captivated by Holy Roller, and wrote to his owners that he would give the horse a home for retirement, when the time came. He reflected on the flops: “Flops were not altogether unusual for Roley. Despite his size, he wasn’t very brave—in fact he was a bit of a sook.

If you read his veterinary history and relate that to his racing record you will see that when he was fit, he won. If his vet record said ‘slight swelling in fetlock,’ next race he would finish dead last. If he got a sore foot he would stand in the paddock with his foot off the ground and put his nose on the bit that hurt, as if showing you. If he got a loose shoe, he would not walk on it. I have never seen another horse like that!”

When he returned to racing as a four-year-old and bother free, he won five out of his next 8 starts. He soon became known to many as “The Camel,” and picked up a cult of followers. On racing day, people would come and crowd around his stall to see the big guy for themselves, and old horseshoes became highly coveted souvenirs.

As Roley’s career progressed, it became more and more of a success. He was back with a vengeance, and when he built up steam there were few horses capable of beating the steady percussion of his huge strides.

Here is a video of one of Holy Roller’s best glory moments: winning the Group Two Waterford Crystal mile at Moonee Valley in 1997. The announcer refers to him as a “rampaging elephant” as he makes an incredible turnaround, and like a giant engine, smokes everyone around him.

Not that you need the tip, but his jockey is the one in pink silks. (And apologies for the rather dated video quality.)

From being a blank-staring, gurgling baby with no go-power and a ‘dismal future,’ Roley rose to be a Group 2 winner. Unfortunately, while he seemed set to head for the pinnacle of his career, two races later he had a small suspensory tear.

He was given a year off to recuperate, and he came back to win one more race, a barrier trial where he beat several Group One winners. But an ultrasound taken afterward revealed that his tear had recurred, and in fact deteriorated.

He was lead to Dr. Hoare’s property for a noble retirement. He had won $320,865 in total prize money, and his record was 25-12-3-0.

Upon retirement, Holy Roller became a dressage horse and eventer, and also served as a babysitter to young horses at his retirement home with veterinarian Rod Hoare.

Life After Racing
Dr. Hoare and Holy Roller getting the hang of life off the track.

Dr. Hoare brought Holy Roller into his life on his property in Picton, New South Wales to learn the skills of eventing. Dr. Hoare took it easy with Roley: he didn’t’ want to cause problems with Roley’s injury. And Roley took in the gentle eventing training good-naturedly, and seemed to love the relaxed country landscape and jumping.

He also proved to be an excellent role model for the younger horses on the farm. “We used him as an ‘uncle’ to the foals and weanlings,” Dr. Hoare told Punters. He taught them manners without biting or kicking any other horse. Roley never intimidated anyone when he was with us.”

Dr. Hoare also relates a story when he took Holy Roller to a dressage day, and had to report to the judge. “She asked my name and the name of the horse. Holy Roller? Named after the racehorse?” “’No, this is the racehorse,’ I responded. She didn’t believe me until she saw his brands!”

Holy Roller lived out a happy retirement at Dr. Hoare’s property to the end of his days, where he was appreciated and admired, and Dr. Hoare fondly remembers his special horse bringing in visitors from all over the country. Sadly, he was put down several years ago after serious teeth problems meant he was unable to eat enough to maintain his condition.

“While Roley was renowned for his size, that is not the enduring memory that we have of him. It was his personality and nature that made him stand out. He was always happy to receive groups of visitors in his retirement and came up to them in the paddock, always hoping for some titbit or a pat. He would walk straight up to you and put his head at your knee level and want you to pat him on the neck.

“He would move in this way from person to person around the group much like a Labrador dog seeks attention. His size was intimidating but he was all gentleman. Those that know horses realise that a horse dropping his head like that is a sign of submission and trust, and such bonding is unusual and much valued. Roley was such a great horse, and he will never be forgotten.”

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