The Australian website Punters took a look back in time at the life and career of Holy Roller, the 18.1hh racehorse who became a huge (literally) fan favorite in Australia back in the 90’s.
The gelding was too big to ever step on the scales, but he was estimated to have weighed almost 1,800 pounds—about 660 pounds heavier than the average thoroughbred. 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 (Sanction—Secret Blessing) was a notable winner, 12 wins in 25 career starts, but his career as one of the most enormous thoroughbreds to date didn’t exactly start out on the right hoof. Actually, the fact that he even made it to the racetrack at all was a huge defiance of the odds.
His November 1992 birth took over an hour at Australia’s Woodlands Stud, and was very difficult for his dam 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 his 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 aptly nicknamed “Huge” by his handlers and when he struggled to nurse for another 30 minutes one of the vets bluntly spoke his mind: “He hasn’t got a hope.”
But he was wrong. Despite gurgling along with breathing issues, Holy Roller gradually made it under the care 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 exclaimed, “My God! What have we got here?”
Here’s some more handler insults, according to Punters:
“I remember when we took him swimming; you’d be halfway across the dam before his feet left bottom.” –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’ flames 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 directed at the huge beast, Hawkes continued to bring up Holy Roller with good training. He even began to see some positive qualities, noting his tremendous balance. As he kept growing he 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 foal were rough, his start as a racehorse was just plain embarrassing. His premiere was the 1200m maiden for 2-year-olds at Canterbury in 1995.
The bookies opened him at 33-1, but by post time he had ballooned to 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 would go on to produce moments of spontaneous excitement.
Although Holy Roller didn’t quite “get it” at first, he was still getting an education. In his fourth start at Kembla Grange he broke his maiden with noticeable hutzpah at over a mile. He was then allowed some time off as he continued to grow. By the time he returned he stood 18.1hh.
Back on the track he won four races in a row…followed by a puzzling dud, followed by another win. And so it would go: a couple big efforts, and a few flops here and there.
Dr. Rod Hoare was a veterinarian who was captivated by Holy Roller. He wrote to his owners that he would give the horse a home for retirement when the time came.
“If you read his veterinary history and relate that to his racing record you will see that when he was fit, he won,” observed Dr. Hoare. “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 healthy four-year-old, 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, his legend only grew. 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.
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 suffered 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 with a 25-12-3-0 record.
Life After Racing
Dr. Hoare brought Holy Roller into his life on his property in Picton, NSW. There, he was retrained as an eventing prospect. Dr. Hoare took it easy with Roley; he didn’t want to cause problems with Roley’s injury, and Roley seemed to thrive in his new role.
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. 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 dental problems rendered him unable to adequately eat.
“While Roley was renowned for his size, that is not the enduring memory that we have of him,” Dr. Hoare recalled. “It was his personality and nature that made him stand out…His size was intimidating but he was all gentleman.”