How long has it been now since horse racing tasted greatness? Fifteen years back, to Spectacular Bid? Sixteen to Affirmed, 17 to Seattle Slew? Twenty-one long, desperate years since Secretariat raised the bar much too high to ever be cleared again? How long?
So they came to Saratoga last Saturday, seeking a superstar. "Looking, once again, to try to get to the holy land, when there is no holy land," said Nick Zito, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin. They came in Jaguars and in Jeeps for the running of the 125th Travels Stakes, dressed in the dueling outfits of August at the Spa: designer dresses in the clubhouse and T-shirts in the backyard. The object of their scrutiny was a strapping, gray 3-year-old named Holy Bull, who would lace Preakness and Belmont winner Tabasco Cat and about whom there was as much uncertainty as fascination, a deliciously fast horse, perhaps the horse all of racing has been waiting for.
"It's simple—we need heroes," said trainer Dick Small, who would race his own colt, Arkansas Derby winner Concern, against Holy Bull.
The days leading to the Travers were rife with skepticism. Tabasco Cat had prepped splendidly for the Travers, but Holy Bull, who set the racing world drooling with blazing triumphs in the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes early in the year, had bowed out of the Triple Crown series after being left at the gate in the Derby and finishing 12th. He reemerged on May 30 to beat older horses in the Metropolitan Mile and to crush inferior 3-year-olds in the Dwyer at Belmont on July 3 and in the Haskell at Monmouth Park, his home track, three weeks ago. That left the Bull's lifetime record at 11 wins in 13 starts. His speed and charisma were unchallenged, but plenty of questions loomed: Would he stay the Travers's classic distance of 1¼ miles? Would he respond to the pressure of another horse at his throat? Did he have heart?
D. Wayne Lukas, Tabasco Cat's trainer, stood grazing his colt early Saturday morning. "When this race is over." he said, "I'd like to hire Holy Bull's press corps. They've done a great job, but tonight they're going to be out of work."
Jimmy Croll, Holy Bull's droll, 74-year-old trainer, reacted to such sniping with a face of unblinking certainty. But late Saturday afternoon, with his horse 220 yards from the wire, Croll suddenly wasn't so sure. Holy Bull had withstood the pressure of a Lukas-entered rabbit named Commanche Trail through crackling early fractions of 22[4/5] seconds to the quarter of a mile and 46[1/5] to the half. He had drawn five lengths clear entering the final turn, dismissing Tabasco Cat. But now came Concern, Small's tiny bay closer, rushing to Holy Bull's withers. Croll's heart sank. "I'm going to be second," Croll told himself".
But then, on the track where fabled upsets are legion, Holy Bull summoned all of the qualities that the skeptics presumed were lacking. Under an abrupt, lefthanded whip from jockey Mike Smith—"Love taps," Smith said, although there were 17 of them on a horse who had almost never been hit before—Holy Bull responded and beat back Concern, who had seemed certain to pass him.
"I thought it would take an exceptional horse to hold me off," said Jerry Bailey, Concern's rider. "But now I don't think I'd have gotten by him if we'd run a mile and a half."
Croll watched in wonder as his colt dug in. "I saw that, and all at once I had renewed hope," he said, shaking his head and scuffing the dirt at his feet. "All heart, that's what it was. All heart."
The Bull passed under the wire a short neck in front, finishing in 2:02 over a "wet fast" track. Tabasco Cat finished a struggling third, beaten by more than 17 lengths. "He didn't handle the track at all," said Lukas, who shook hands with Croll in the winner's circle and whispered into his right ear, "Job well done."