It’s no stretch to say that Holy Bull was on a short list of the most talented American runners of the nineties. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, the steely gray son of Great Above won 13-of-16 lifetime starts from 1993 through 1995. The Horse of the Year of 1994 often overwhelmed his opponents with blazing speed that eventually broke the heart of many a good horse that tried to rally at him. At his best, he was electrifying, but it was an afternoon at Saratoga that he showed the heart that only the great ones possess. It’s hard to believe that it’s been this long, but this week marks the 20-year anniversary of Holy Bull’s gutsy win in the Travers.
Going in, the 1994 Travers was supposed to be a two-horse race between the streaking 4-5 shot, Holy Bull, and the dual classic winner, Tabasco Cat, who was sent off at 8-5. Full disclosure, it was not only Tabasco Cat at those odds, he was coupled with a horse named Commanche Trail. The gelding would later become a graded stakes winner as a sprinter, but he had only one job in the Travers, and that was to pressure Holy Bull early to help his D. Wayne Lukas trained entrymate’s chances of winning. The rabbit did his job of harassing Holy Bull early, but as it turned out the real beneficiary was a late running colt from the Dickie Small barn by the name of Concern.
On a drying out track that had begun the day as muddy, but was upgraded to fast just before the big race, the rabbit named Commanche Trail was unabashedly urged and whipped right out of the starting gate to accomplish his mission. He ran fast early and hung with Holy Bull for as long as he could, with the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner not too far behind. Meanwhile, Concern, the 5-1 third choice in the field of five, was content to drop way back, completely out of the picture through the first quarter mile in :22.83. The taxing early fractions would eventually take their toll on Holy Bull, but by the time the Travers field had run six furlongs, the favorite had put away the rabbit, and Tabasco Cat was not exactly turning it on.
Owned and trained by Jimmy Croll, Holly Bull was now winging out there on the lead, attempting to win the ten furlong Travers on the front end like he had done so many times before. This was this different, though. Ten furlongs at Saratoga is never easy, and the complexion of this race was made dramatically more difficult by the pacesetter run by Lukas.
Concern started to wind things up late in the backstretch, and began to pick up gobs of ground on Saratoga’s far turn. Holy Bull still had a sizeable lead, but as track announcer Tom Durkin bellowed, “but there is cause for concern!”, it was clear that the son of Broad Brush in the yellow and blue blocks was ready to give the favorite everything he wanted on this day.
In the midst of an amazing stretch run, Holy Bull spurted, and it looked briefly like the unstoppable late run of the Maryland-bred challenger would be miraculously turned away, but Concern, under Jerry Bailey, kept coming. Once more than 20 lengths behind, but very much benefited by the rabbit, Concern probably should have blew past Holy Bull. The race had been perfectly set up for the Arkansas Derby winner, and Holy Bull and Mike Smith, after all they had been through, should have been sitting ducks down on the Saratoga rail. Holy Bull dug deep, though, and after that, dug just a little deeper, and as Durkin succeeded in helping to bring the crowd to a fever pitch, he made it to the wire just in front of Concern.
The time for the grueling mile and one-quarter was 2:02.03, and the winning margin was a determined neck. The classy Tabasco Cat outgamed Unaccounted For to the wire for third, but was some 17 lengths behind the winner. The rabbit had long since stopped running by the time the top-two had hit the wire.