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."
Croll simply stood therewith his family, including Holy Bull, who since being willed to him by supermarket heiress Rachel Carpenter last summer has become virtually a family member. Surrounding the trainer were his wife, Bobbie, his daughter, Nancy, and his 49-year-old son, Billy, Holy Bull's assistant trainer and the person who first spotted the colt's remarkable action at Bonnie Heath Farm in Florida in March 1993. Billy buys a New Jersey lottery ticket for each week of the summer, and this year, when the pot reached $31 million, his 18-year-old son, Toby, asked him where he would go if he won the jackpot. "Nowhere," said Billy. "I've waited all my life for this horse." Toby recites the lineup of Team Croll like this: "The father, the son and the Holy Bull."
Now Holy Bull is in position to become the first horse since Slew O' Gold, in 1983, to win the 3-year-old championship without winning a Triple Crown race or the Breeders" Cup Classic. (Holy Bull is not eligible for the Breeders' Cup due to a clerical error on Croll's part earlier in the year, and Croll says he will not pay the $360,000 supplemental fee that would gain him entry.) The Bull is next scheduled to face Go for Gin along with older horses in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Woodward at Belmont Park on Sept. 17. Both Tabasco Cat and Go for Gin will run in the Classic, and no 3-year-old has won the Classic and failed to be named champion of that division. But that will most likely happen this year: Barring a collapse in the Woodward, Holy Bull's litany of success will have him securely at the front of the pack.
More romantically, Holy Bull has for the moment captured the game's imagination. To his alluring speed he has added courage. In the waning light of Saturday evening, Team Croll gathered at Saratoga's stakes barn. Groom Bob Coffey fed Holy Bull carrots and led him about on a shank as Croll watched and a band hammered out oldies in the distance.
It is a dangerous thing to knock at history's door. Croll knows he must do so with caution, and with the knowledge that Holy Bull has much left before him. So he stops to ponder the question when asked whether he is saddling the elusive superstar. "He's pretty close," Croll finally says.
Perhaps it's true that there is no holy land. But frozen in one small moment on Saturday, surely there was a hero.
Even when Holy Bull opened up what seemed like a safe lead, there was still room for Concern.